Tag Archive: Short Story

While I Was Sleeping – Short Story Sunday

This is a short story I wrote in March exploring what might have happened inside the head of one of my characters as she was asleep in a stasis chamber. It was an exercise for me in writing description, which I really enjoyed writing. I hope you enjoy reading it. :)

 

Hiss.

My pod opens, and my eyes with it. Only the slightest amount of light spills in through the room’s windows.

I disconnect a zillion wires from myself and climb out of the pod. Everything is still and silent.

I go down the stairs quietly, as if disrupting the stillness will activate an alarm. I reach the bottom and head straight for the door. As I step outside I stop short.

Where my city once was there is only a crater. My building, on the very outskirts, is the only one still standing. Something prickles in the back of my mind, telling me that everyone I know is gone.

Ash falls from the sky like rain and settles in my hair, and the only light in the dark sky is an eerie red glow on the horizon. The disaster happened recently. Is that why I’m awake? I should be asleep. I should be asleep until there’s a cure. But now there will be no cure. There is no one left to make one.

I am alone, and I am dying.

***********

I turn back to go inside. There’s little chance there will be anything in there for me to eat or drink, but I’ll die soon anyway so what’s the difference? I was Stage Four when I went in. I’ll live for another month, at maximum. Only a week without water.

As I wander the first floor I glance around for anything that will help me in any way. There’s no furniture anywhere, no food, no water. Everything is empty, barren, and dusty.

How long was I asleep? I wonder. What year is it? And what fell to destroy the city? There’s nothing there now, so it can’t have been any kind of rock, unless it disintegrated on impact, which I find highly unlikely given the fact that it was large enough to flatten an entire city. So what on earth could have fallen and leave no more evidence than a crater?

I climb the cracked stairs to the second floor. There are missing steps along the way and I have to jump from one step to another in places. By the time I get upstairs my hands are covered in dust. I brush them off on my cargo pants and start searching. There’s a small fridge in an office, but it’s empty.

As I search the other five floors my legs start to ache. It’s been who knows how long since I used them.

Eventually I reach the top floor, where my pod is, and sit inside it. There’s nothing else to do. The padding is thin, and I’m a little surprised I didn’t wake up achy just from that. I lean back against the lid and close my eyes. I already miss people. Not anyone in particular, just anyone to break the silence. I found a droid on the fifth floor, but it was a simple SRV-Droid. It might help a little, but I don’t want to move right now. And why should I? Why not just stay here for the week it takes me to thirst to death? Staying still won’t affect anything but how long it will be before the virus takes full effect and kills me. Moving around speeds up the process, but I’d probably still die quicker from thirst.

I sigh and get back out of the pod. No. I don’t want to die bored. If nothing else the SRV-Droid will give me something to tinker with. You can take the girl out of the shop but you can’t take the mechanic out of the girl, I suppose.

I head down the two flights of stairs to the room where I found the droid. I check the label on its chest. SRV-1004-Sebastion. It’s unusual they’d pick such a long name. I flip the droid on its front and pry open the control hatch with my fingers. They haven’t maintained their callouses while I slept, so I cut them on the metal. I instinctively stick them in my mouth. When they’ve stopped bleeding enough that they won’t drip on the wires I grab the mini screwdriver and wrench from their spots in the side of the hatch.

I start to tinker with the droid’s wires and in two minutes he’s online. I close the hatch, tucking the tools into my back pocket as I set the droid upright. He immediately spins to face me.

“Hello, Master. I am Sebastion. What can I help you with?”

I blow hair out of my face. “Go back to sleep.”

The droid doesn’t respond, and I didn’t expect it to. I press the power button below its designation and flip it on its front again. I reopen the hatch and pull the wrench from my pocket to adjust a few wires. Afterward I open the circuitboard hatch and reprogram the droid’s database.

When I finish and wake the droid up he greets me differently.

“Hello. I’m Sebastion. What’s your name?”

“I’m Bella. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too, Bella. Where are we?”

“The edge of Minton, Beryl Province. The city is destroyed.”

“Destroyed? Why?”

“I don’t know.” It felt good to talk to someone, even if it was an artificial someone. “Come here. We need to change your designation.”

“Change my designation? But why? Is it incorrect?”

“It is now that I’ve reprogrammed you. Your designation is SRV, but you’re a PERS-Droid now. Come with me.”

Sebastion follows me into one of the offices and I rifle through the drawers for a marker. They’re probably all dry and worthless now, but it’s worth a try.

I find one and pull it out, uncapping it and crossing out the SRV part of Sebastion’s designation. The marker still works, though it’s obviously working on dying, and I scratch PERS onto Sebastion’s chest right under the crossed out former designation.

“There we go. You’re properly designated now.”

“Why was I a SRV-Droid before?”

“That’s the way you were designed.”

“Why did you make me a PERS-Droid?”

“Because I needed someone to talk to. Why do you ask so many questions?”

“Because I’m curious.”

“You’re a droid. You shouldn’t be curious. No more questions, please.”

“Okay.”

I think of something and press Sebastion’s power button. I open his circuitboard hatch and read its workings, scanning for evidence of internal clock programming. There is a minimal clock that tells him what hour it is, but not what minute or second. More advanced droids tend to have entire calendars that go all the way from the year to the second.

I close up the hatch and turn him back on.

“Good morning, Bella.”

“Is it morning?”

He pauses a moment before answering. “Yes. It is within the eleven a.m. hour.”

“Thank you. Would you please let me know every time the hour changes?”

“Yes.”

I nod and sit down on the floor. My arms are tired from messing with Sebastion’s programming. I wish I had a more precise clock. I’d make myself a sundial, but I have no idea how this odd red glow works.

“We’re going outside,” I say, standing.

He nods and we head down the stairs. He falls through the holes in the steps, but he gets back up every time.

“That was fun,” he says when we reach the bottom.

“You can’t have fun. You’re a robot.”

“Why are there so many things I can’t be?”

“No questions, remember?”

“Sorry, Bella.”

I open the door and he walks outside. I exit after him and sit on the edge of the crater. It’s deep, probably twenty feet down in the center, and lit in red from whatever is providing light. I suppose it must be the sun, but it doesn’t seem like the sun could show this color. Unless the ash in the atmosphere had something to do with it. Still, it seems unlikely. And the glow is still just barely peeking above the horizon. The sun would have moved by now.

“This is beautiful,” Sebastion says.

I shrug. “In a way, I suppose.”

I take my hair, dip-dyed pink with my own natural blonde at the top, out of the ponytail it’s already falling out of, and tie it back up tighter.

Something shifts in the bottom of the crater. Just the dirt collapsing slightly, I assume.

It moves again, this time shifting farther. Then I see a hand lift out of the dirt.

How is that even possible? How did anyone survive? And after being buried for a long time- I stop. I don’t know that it’s been a long time since the whatever-it-was hit.

I get to my feet and head down into the hole, careful to not slip in the easily-shifting dirt.

A face emerges and the person takes a deep breath before croaking out a simple “help.”

“I’m coming,” I say, trying to hurry to the bottom.

I finally reach the hand and grab it. I wrench my hand away quickly. The hand is cold and clammy, like that of a dead person.

“Help,” the person croaks again.

I shove down my distaste and grab the hand again, pulling the person out of the dirt.

“Thank you,” she says as I lower her down gently onto the surface.

She’s probably about my age, an older teenager, with black hair. She’s pale, but even paler from her ordeal.

“Who are you?”

“Bianca.”

“I’m Bella.”

She gives me a tiny smile. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. How did you survive?”

“I have no idea.”

“What happened? What fell?”

“It didn’t fall. A spaceship as large as the city landed here.”

“A spaceship? That made a deep, round crater?”

“It wasn’t round. It definitely wasn’t a flying saucer. It was like a giant cruise liner, but it came into the atmosphere from space.”

“Do you know how little sense that makes?”

Bianca nods. “But that’s what happened. I swear.”

“But it’s impossible. It made a perfectly even, twenty-foot-deep, round crater.”

“I can’t give you any evidence, but that’s what I saw. That’s what happened.”

“Are you sure you didn’t go nuts from either lack of oxygen or a blow to the head?”

“Not entirely, but that’s what happened. Just ask Ellie.” She points to a spot in the crater, but there’s no one there.

“Is there someone else under there?”

“No, she got out, see?”

I look back. Still no one. “Bianca, there’s no one there.”

“There is. Ellie’s there. I swear it.”

“No, she’s not. You’re hallucinating.” I call up to the edge of the crater. “Sebastion, come here!”

The droid comes down the edge of the crater and stops by Bianca and me.

“Help me get Bianca out of here.”

The droid nods and takes one of Bianca’s arms while I take the other and we half-help, half-drag her out of the crater. I take her inside and sit her down against the front wall.

“Ellie didn’t come with us,” Bianca says.

“Ellie was never there.”

“She was! Right before the crater fell! And right after.”

“Right after?”

“Yes. She went with the aliens.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” Sebastion says. “She’s nuts.”

“I’m not!” Bianca retorts. “I saw her! She’s gone now.”

“You don’t make the slightest bit of sense,” I say, sitting back on my heels. “I guess I’ll have to find some food and water now that I’m not the only one here.”

“Food?” Bianca perks up. “You have food?”

“No, I don’t. There’s none here and the city is gone. We’ll have to-”

“The city’s not gone! It’s right there.” She points out the door.

“No, Bianca, it’s not. You’re seeing things still. There’s no city there. Just a big old crater that I was dumb enough to pull you out of.”

At the exact same time Sebastion says “That’s not very nice” and Bianca says “Hey!”

“Right. Sorry. Can we just focus on the matter at hand? We need food and water and there’s nowhere to get it for the next ten miles. I don’t know about you but I don’t plan on walking ten miles.”

“We have to,” Bianca says, her eyes glossy like she can’t focus them. “That’s where the aliens are.”

“Bianca, I’m telling you, they weren’t aliens.” You don’t know that, a voice whispers into her mind. “I’m not walking ten miles and neither are you. We don’t have the strength, you especially.”

“I can do it,” Sebastion says. “I don’t tire.”

I turn to him. “That’s actually a really good idea. How fast can you go?”

“Two miles an hour.”

I sigh. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have ten hours to wait. You can’t go any faster than that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then that’s a no go.”

“It’s better I go than we have no food at all.”

“Tell you what. Can you carry Bianca?”

“I think so.”

“All right. You take Bianca and get food. She needs it more than I do.”

“She’s weak, but I don’t see why you don’t need food as much as she does.”

“Because I’m dying anyway even if I don’t starve. Just go. Take her and get food and water.”

He nods and picks up Bianca in his arms before heading out the door. I am alone again.

There’s grease on my fingers from messing with his wires, which I hadn’t even noticed until now. I’m used to grease, so my brain doesn’t pay special attention to it. Now there’s dirt and dust all settled in it and my fingers are sticky and nearly black. I wipe them on my pants, but they’re still a mess. Oh well.

I head upstairs to my pod and open its control panel. A bar shows that the pod is empty of sleeping gas and the bottom drainage chamber is full. Just as it should be. The monitors near the pod are no longer hooked to me, so they’re all flatlined. I turn them off to save on power, not that that’s really an issue at this point.

I fiddle with some wires in the pod and the sleeping gas vents out of the drainage chamber from the end opposite me. I won’t be needing it again.

I head into a nearby office and grab a few chairs, using the screwdriver from Sebastion’s panel to cut off their cushions. If I’m going to sleep – a normal sleep – in the pod, at least I can be a little more comfortable this time.

I lay them across the pod’s bottom. Turns out I only needed four of the six I cut. No big deal. I’ll find a use for the other two, or they can just sit around and collect dust like they were doing before I cut them off the chairs. It won’t make a difference.

I glance out the window. The glow still hasn’t moved off the horizon. It’s definitely not the sun. So what is it? It seems to be coming from every direction. What could go around the earth like that? And doesn’t that mean that anywhere else it’s just completely dark?

Ash still falls, collecting on the windowsill and drifting in through cracked glass. The glow on broken glass is both eerie and fascinating to look at. It looks like someone cut themselves on the glass, or, in places where it has only fractured instead of shattered, like blood spilled into a spiderwebbing pattern.

I watch the ash flakes fall, watching them race to the sill as would raindrops.

A sudden breeze blows toward me through the window and goosebumps run up and down my arms. A crow flies by the window, shimmering in the glow. A single black feather drifts down and catches on one of the cracks in the window. I pick it up and tuck the end of it into my ponytail. I can’t see it, but I imagine it contrasts nicely with the pink and pale yellow.

I step away from the window and take a seat in the pod once more. I lean my head against the lid and close my eyes. It’s not long before I’m asleep.

*******

When I wake again my eyes are greeted with sunlight. Real sunlight. I squint and look out the window. The crater is still there, but the sky is a clear blue and the sun is shining bright, its usual yellow.

“What on earth?” I mutter to myself.

“You’re awake!”

I turn at the familiar mechanical voice and see Sebastion coming toward me. “How long was I asleep?”

“Three years.”

“That doesn’t make any sense…”

“You seem to say that a lot. I remember from when we found Bianca.”

I look around for the girl.

“Oh, she’s not here. She decided to stay at the camp we found. There was food and water there and I brought it. It’s all still good. Just canned stuff.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you hungry?”

My stomach growls, answering before my mouth can.

“Wait here. I’ll bring you something.” He heads down the stairs and I hear thudding. Apparently he’s learned how to avoid the holes.

A moment later he’s back with a can of peaches and a bottle of water. I catch sight of his designation. “PERS” has been renewed with a working marker, and “SRV” has been completely blacked out. “Who marked your designation?”

“You did.”

“No, I mean who renewed it.”

“Oh, that was Tristan.”

“Tristan?”

“Yeah. He found us two years ago. He tried to wake you up, but you wouldn’t. He’s been with us since.”

“Where is he?”

“Down by the crater. He sits on the edge the same way you did.”

I take the peach can, which he has already opened for me, and the water bottle and head down the stairs.

I head straight outside, exactly the same way I did last time I was awake. There’s a young man with dark curly hair sitting on the edge of the crater, one knee pulled up to his chest while the other leg dangles over the edge. I hesitantly take a seat next to him and he starts, turning toward me with a look of amazement on his face. “You’re awake.”

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”

I start to reach for the peaches but I stop myself and look at my fingers. They’re spotless.

“I cleaned your fingers,” he says, a little sheepishly. “There wasn’t much else to do.”

“Thanks, I guess?”

I reach into the can and pull out a peach slice, popping it into my mouth. It still tastes amazing, and after having not eaten for who-knows-how-long, I have a feeling it would have tasted amazing even if it wasn’t really.

“The peaches are good, aren’t they?” Tristan asks me.

I nod.

“You’re even prettier awake,” he tells me.

I feel heat rise to my cheeks. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

I pull another peach from the can and eat it. “So you’ve been here for two years?” I ask him.

“That’s right. It gets lonely.”

“It gets lonely after less than fifteen minutes.”

He laughs. “Well, if Sebastion weren’t around I don’t think I could tolerate it.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What?”

I give a slight smile. “I reprogrammed Sebastion to be a personality droid. He was a service droid before I fixed him up.”

“I saw his designation had been changed. You did that? You don’t strike me as the programming type.”

“I’m a mechanic.”

“Really? A mechanic with pink hair?”

I shrug. “I like dying my hair, that’s all. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m a mechanic. I like working with my hands.”

“I guess. It’s just… unusual.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The corner of his mouth curls upward. “I guess not.”

“So how did you come to be at the crater that was once Minton?” I ask, eating another peach slice.

“Wandering. It’s not much better anywhere else.”

I nod.

“How long were you here before you fell asleep?” he asks.

“The first time or the second time?”

“The second time.”

“Less than a day, awake. I don’t know how long I slept the first time. There was no one around to tell me. Crater of a city and all.”

He laughs a little. “When did you go to sleep?”

“4275. And I think the crater was recent when I woke up the first time.”

“So you probably slept for about a hundred years.”

I laugh. “So I guess I’m Sleeping Beauty now, huh?”

“Looks like it to me.” He smiles and reaches up to my ponytail, running a finger along it. It doesn’t feel like he’s running his finger against my hair, though. I reach up and feel that the crow feather is still there.

“I was smoothing it out,” he says, drawing his hand away. “It’s cool.”

“Thanks.”

There’s an awkward pause, which I break. “How many people do you figure survived?”

“Maybe a hundred, nationwide.”

“Wow.”

He nods. “It’s certainly not many.”

“What about the camp about ten miles from here?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been there.”

I start to cough and when my hand comes away from my mouth it’s coated in blood.

“Are you okay?” Tristan asks.

“I just coughed up blood, but yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.”

“Sorry. Do you know what it is?”

“Stage Four Malum.”

“Malum was cured nearly a hundred years ago.”

“And I was asleep.”

I look toward the crater and my brow furrows. Why wasn’t I woken when a cure was found? That was what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to sleep until there was a cure. And then how did I sleep for two more years? None of this was right. None of it.

“Are you okay?” Tristan asks me again.

“I don’t know…”

The sky flickers for a moment, switching to the ash-ridden grey and red and quickly back again.

“What…”

“What’s wrong?”

Tristan stands beside me. He flickers and he’s Bianca for a split second.

“What’s going on?” I ask. My words are mildly slurred.

“I don’t know.” He flickers mid-sentence and even his voice changes to Bianca’s.

None of this makes any sense. None of this is right. This is all wrong. All wrong…

Everything flickers again, but this time to a scene I don’t recognize. Tristan, Bianca, whoever it is, changes into a giant crow and the sky turns to a deep purple. There’s no crater, but a city of dark spires rising into the starless sky.

I stumble backward as things revert back to Tristan’s scene.

“Bella,” he says, grabbing my shoulders.

I didn’t tell him my name.

“How do you know my name?”

“Sebastion told me.”

Sebastion. The droid I fixed.

“Sebastion, come here,” I say. I try to yell it, but it comes out as a croak. I’m dizzy. And so tired…

“Stay awake!” Tristan says, shaking me. My eyes bolt open and Sebastion comes out the door.

“Sebastion. Stand still.” My voice is too small. Too quiet. It’s not mine.

The scene flickers back to the odd darkness. This time I focus on Sebastion. He’s the same. He didn’t change. Didn’t shift.

What’s going on? I scream it inside my head.

My knees buckle and I fall to the ground. Everything flickers back to Bianca’s scene and she holds my shoulders, her weak arms threatening to give out as she tries to gently lower me to the ground. She fails and I fall. I have no control. I just fall to the ground, my head hitting the hard dirt. My eyes close, but I don’t sleep. Not yet. I force them open and the scene flickers to a fourth setting.

I’m encased in metal, wires attached to me everywhere. They’re monitoring me. Keeping track of my vitals. There’s a muffled voice outside and I gasp as clean air fills my lungs. I’m in my pod. Why am I waking up? Have they found me a cure? My eyes are wide open, now, trying to see out of my pod. But I know it’s impossible. They made sure there weren’t any gaps anywhere, and there’s no window.

The pod opens and I bolt upright. There’s someone standing above me and I poke them in the eye.

“Ouch! What was that for!”

The voice is familiar. Tristan’s. Am I still asleep? Am I still dreaming? I look up at him and the face and hair match the Tristan in my dream, too. “Am I awake? Really awake?”

“Yes, you’re awake! Dude!”

I disconnect the wires and step out of the pod. “Sorry I poked you in the eye.”

“Thanks, but I’m still half-blind now! Geez!”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Tristan.”

“Are you with The Lowlines?”

“The who now?”

“Why did you wake me up?”

“Because I thought you were in danger.”

I cock an eyebrow at him. “Seriously? I’m in a pod hooked to monitors and you think I’m in danger and need saving? You’re an idiot.”

“Sorry! I just thought you needed help!”

“Well I didn’t! I’m sick with Malum. I was in there to keep me stable until they could find a cure, and now I’m dying again. Thank you so much for your help.” I roll my eyes and storm down the stairs, growling. That dumb idiot! Why couldn’t he just mind his own business?

I step out of the building onto a busy sidewalk. At least there isn’t a giant crater where my home used to be. I don’t even bother to head to the crosswalk, I just cross the street. Several cars honk at me, but I ignore them. The building I was in is directly across from a cafe that my sister frequents, the Cafe Humont. I always just shorten it to Humont. A bell above the door jingles as I walk inside. I scan the tables for my sister and find her in a corner with Ore, the leader of the Lowlines.

She looks up and catches sight of me and her brow immediately furrows. She stands up as I arrive at the table. “Bella? Why are you up?”

“Some idiot named Tristan took it upon himself to wake me.”

“We put you in an abandoned building on purpose so this wouldn’t happen,” Ore says, standing next to us.

“I know. And yet somehow it did. I poked him in the eye.”

I see Ore stifle a chuckle.

“We need to put you back to sleep,” Raven says. “There’s no cure yet. You’ll die.”

“We didn’t design the pod for that. We designed it for one-time use. The remaining gas is irretrievable from the drainage chamber.”

“I guess we don’t really have any more options, then,” Ore says.

Just like in my dream, I am awake and I am dying.

Rainy Days & Coffee Grounds – Short Story Sunday

Here is yet another installment of the short story series starring Keslie Bardell that I’m calling Memories & Photographs. Enjoy. :) (Also keep in mind that I don’t edit any of my short stories before I put them up and that I don’t have a lot of practice in writing romance. And for some reason the formatting did weird things that I can’t manage to fix.)

 

Keslie pulled her schoolbooks out of her bike basket and stepped into the Piano Shoppe cafe. Her entry was heralded by a bell over the door, and her friend Dominic smiled at her from across the room as he finished serving the drinks on his tray.

“Hey, Keslie.”

“Hey.”

“I’ll just be a couple more minutes.”

Keslie nodded and took a seat in the front corner by two windows, her favorite spot. When Dominic came over, he brought with him a grey mug and a red one, the latter of which he handed to Keslie.

“Rose tea with cream and sugar?” she asked, even though she didn’t have to.

Dominic nodded. “Your favorite.”

Keslie smiled. “Thanks.” She took a sip and pulled her math book from its spot in the pile.

“Livi’s not coming?”

Keslie shook her head. “She’s sick today.”

“I don’t think even being sick could get that one down.”

“No, but she’s considerate and doesn’t want to get us sick. Besides, you’ve seen how dramatic she can be.”

Dominic laughed. “Has she been acting?”

“‘I believe have been beset by something that most people term as… the common cold! Whatever shall I do!'” Keslie put a hand to her forehead for extra affect and the two of them collapsed into laughter.

“I wish I could have heard that.”

“You might just get to, depending on when you next talk to her. It’s much better in her voice.” Keslie grinned.

“I’m sure. She has more of a flair for the dramatic.” Dominic winked.

“Hey! I think I did a pretty good impression if I do say so myself.” She crossed her arms and feigned haughtiness.

“Even were you a master actress you couldn’t do Livi justice. She’s quite the theatrical one.” His voice held a hint of sarcasm and quite a bit of teasing.

“You’re right,” Keslie said, unfolding her arms with a drawn out sigh. “I suppose I’ll never be the great actress she is.” She put a hand under her chin, pretending to look dreamily at nothing.

Dominic laughed, blue eyes twinkling. “I think you’ve come out more since Livi came along. You seem to have adopted some of our sarcasm and wit.”

Keslie leaned back and took another sip of her tea. “I’ve noticed, too. It’s nice.”

“Unfortunately, we should probably actually study instead of just joking around the whole time.”

“Hey, I thought it was my job to keep us on task.” She smirked and opened up the math book. “Grossest subject first.”

****************

After they finished doing their homework, they headed over to Keslie’s house to drop off her bike and books and from there to the beach. They sat on a dune that Keslie considered her spot after years of sitting there and writing music.

“I’m glad I live by the beach,” Keslie said.

“Why?” Dominic asked the question thoughtfully.

“Because I love the water and the breeze and the sand. It just suits me, I think.”

“No pun intended.” Dominic grinned.​

Keslie chuckled. “No. That wasn’t intended.” She looked over at him. “Do you like the beach or would you rather live elsewhere?”

“Well, I wouldn’t for anything trade living near you and Livi, but I’ve always loved the idea of living in the mountains. I lived there until I was three, apparently, so I only vaguely remember it, but I think I’d like to live there again. Or maybe in the country. I don’t know, I’ve just always been more drawn to the crisp air and forests and mountains. I love the ocean, but I’m more of an autumn guy than a summer guy, if that makes sense.”

Keslie nodded, looking back out toward the ocean. The breeze ruffled her blonde hair, and she knew the beach too well to bother brushing it away. It would only get blown in her face again a moment later.

Keslie was comfortable here, just sitting on the beach with Dominic. They’d been friends for so long she couldn’t even remember how they met, and she was more comfortable with him than with anyone else in the world. Even her parents, after their divorce. She liked sitting with him, not even having to say anything to enjoy each others’ company. There hadn’t been a lot of just sitting quietly since Livi showed up, and thought Keslie loved Livi like a sister and would never wish for her to change, it was nice to have a moment of stillness.

“I really like you, Keslie.”

Keslie looked at Dominic, startled from her reverie. “What? Sorry. I wasn’t here enough to register what you said.” She chuckled a bit.

“I said I really like you.”

“Of course you do. We’ve been friends for as long as either of us can remember.”

He looked over at her. “That’s not what I mean. I mean I like, like you. Like, can’t-imagine-anyone-I’d-rather-be-with like you.”

Keslie just sat there staring at him for a minute before bursting into laughter. “I’m sorry. This isn’t funny. Just… You like me?” Keslie didn’t think she’d ever had anyone like like her.

“Yeah. Why, is that hard to believe?”

“Not exactly, I just don’t think I’ve ever had anyone like me that way before.”

“Yes you have. I could name five of them right now, aside from myself. But I won’t because, A it would make me seem like a stalker, and B I won’t betray them.”

Keslie shook her head. As she thought about it, she supposed she might have a crush on Dominic, but they’d been friends so long it seemed weird to think of it. He was kind and witty and clever and musical and all sorts of things she had put on her mental list of things to look for in a potential husband, but… Dominic? For some reason, though she knew she should be good friends with whomever she married, she hadn’t ever considered Dominic. Well, there had been one time when she was about twelve, but that totally didn’t count because that was the age she was crushing on half the boys in the school and had no idea what a real relationship looked like or what to look for in a guy.

“What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

“Trying to figure out why I’ve only once ever had a crush on you. Sorry, that came out rather unlike I meant it. I mean it sincerely, not sarcastically. You’re a great guy and you’re pretty much exactly the list in my head, but… It just seems weird to have a crush on you. Because we’ve been friends so long.”

“Yeah. I kind of didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to make things weird.”

“Livi will be overjoyed if we get together. She’s been shipping us pretty much since she met us.”

Dominic laughed. “That sounds like Livi.”

“Maybe she’s a better matchmaker than I gave her credit for.” Keslie shrugged.

“Could be. So I haven’t actually asked you on a date yet.”

“No, you haven’t.” Keslie’s heart was doing laps in her chest. What would it be like to go on a date with Dominic? There was very little each didn’t know about the other, and being romantic would just be… weird. Very, very weird.

“Would you like to go with me to see The Last Element tomorrow night?”

Keslie nodded. She’d been wanting to see that movie since the trailers came out.

“Cool. Our first date, then.” His smile was kind of tentative. Apparently he was finding this weird, too. She felt better knowing she wasn’t the only one.

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence for a bit, both occupied with their own thoughts, until Keslie’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out to see a text from Livi.

How’d the study date go?

Went well. We’re on the beach. Keslie decided it might be better to leave out the fact that she and Dominic were going out until it was a little less weird for her and she could handle Livi’s excitement.

Mind if I come join you?

Keslie turned to Dominic. “Livi wants to know if she can come join us.”

“I thought she didn’t want to get us sick,” he teased.

Sure, Keslie texted.

Be there in a jiff!

It only took Livi a couple of minutes to arrive, since her house was only a few doors down from Keslie’s and both were on the beach.

She took a seat next to Keslie, practically bouncing, and grinned over at them. “Hey guys!”
“Hey, Livi,” Dominic said with a grin.
“How did studying go? Sorry I couldn’t join you. I’ve been beset by what most people call…” Her eyes widened. “The common cold!” She put on a distressed face and both Keslie and Dominic burst out laughing.
“Man, I wish I could have seen your face the first time,” Keslie said.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Livi grinned. “I’m glad I could come now, though. I love hanging out with you guys.” She smiled.
“I thought you weren’t coming so you wouldn’t get us sick,” Dominic said.
“Well, I didn’t want to get everyone in the cafe sick. You guys should join me in the horror that is the common cold. I don’t want to be left alone in this dark place!”
They laughed.
“You’re something else,” Keslie said.
“Why thank you. I wouldn’t want to be something same. Same is rather boring, don’t you agree?” She grinned.
“I quite agree,” Dominic said. “But there’s also something to be said for familiarity.”
“But familiarity and sameness don’t have to be synonymous,” Keslie said. “Something can be familiar and yet be entirely different from anything else, but it’s still familiar to you because you spend time around it.”
Livi nodded. “Precisely. You two are different from anyone else I know, and everyone else I know is different from everyone else I know, and yet I’m familiar with all of them.”
“How do we end up having such borderline phylisophical conversations?” Keslie asked. “We’re such goofballs, and yet our conversations tend so much toward the philisophical.”
“Or the goofy.” Livi made a face that had Dominic and Keslie nearly rolling in the sand laughing in mere moments.
“You are quite the goof.”

“Why thank you.” Livi bowed, as well as she could sitting down, and Keslie laughed. “I do certainly try.”
Livi was the most fun person Keslie had ever met, though Dominic was a very close second, and Keslie could never stay sad for long around the bubbly girl. Even her clothes screamed cheeriness, in bright yellow and hot pink on most occasions. And the fact that Livi also liked music didn’t hurt at all. She always had something she could play to cheer Kes up.
“You guys seem a bit weird today,” Livi remarked, cocking her head. “What’s up?”
Keslie chuckled. “Well…”
“We’re going on a date tomorrow night,” Dominic said, looking rather awkward.
“Yay!” Livi squealed, clapping. “I knew it! I knew you two would end up together! Yes!” She hugged them both and when she pulled back she was grinning ear to ear. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!”
“Calm down, Livi,” Keslie said, trying not to be rude.
“I knew it!” Livi repeated, a bit quieter this time.
“Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up.”
“Yessssss!” Livi said. “Movie quotes for the win.” They high-fived.
“You two…”
“Oh come on, you know you love us,” Dominic said with a grin.
“I do. You know I do. You’re the biggest goofballs I know. And you know how much I love that movie, too.”
“Well of course,” Dominic said. “It’s been your favorite since you were three or something.”
“Longer than that, likely.”
“Well of course,” Livi said. “It’s the greatest movie in all of history. How can anyone not like it?” They were quiet for a minute. “Oh! Dad said that I should bring you guys over for ice cream. We have mint chocolate chip and cherry, my two favorites. And we have a whole refrigerator’s worth of toppings.”

“Ice cream is always good,” Keslie said.
“Definitely true. Come on.” Livi stood and skipped away across the sand toward her house. Keslie and Dominic followed, and found it laid out much the same as Keslie’s house. The back porch opened into the office, which then led forward into the living room and off to the right into the kitchen. Livi’s dad, Zach, was in the kitchen with two cartons of ice cream and a whole array of toppings out on the counter.
“Hey, kids! How are you today?”
“Pretty good, Mr. Brooklyn,” Keslie said. “How are you?”
“I’m doing well. Remember, though, you can call me Zach.”
Keslie nodded, but she rarely called adults by their first names. She’d always been taught to use last names.
“How about you? Dominic, right?”
Dominic nodded. “I’m doing well.”
“That’s good. Come on in and I’ll get you some ice cream. Keslie, what kind of ice cream would you like?”
“Mint chocolate chip, please.”
“All righty.” Four scoops ended up in her bowl. “Help yourself to the toppings.”
“Thanks.” She took the bowl, which was much fuller than she’d anticipated, and added some mini chocolate chips.
“Dominic?”
“Mint chocolate chip, please.”
“All right. That seems to be the favorite. Myself, I prefer cherry, but hey, that just means more for me, right?” He grinned and served up the ice cream. “There you go. Enjoy.”
The dining room was in the same place as Keslie’s as well, just past the kitchen. They took their seats at the table and Zach joined them in a moment.
“Dad took some time off today to work on and art project of his,” Livi said, explaining why he was home so early. She turned to Zach. “Can I show them, Dad?”
“Once you’re done with your ice cream.”

Livi nodded.
Once the three were finished, Livi took them upstairs and down the hall to an art room. Dropcloths covered the whole floor, and there were two easels set up, one of which was covered with a sheet. There was paint splattered everywhere, and it looked kind of like Keslie imagined the inside of Livi’s brain looked.
“Nice room,” Dominic said.
“Yeah. Dad set it up for me, but I convinced him to try out painting, too, so here we are.” She grinned and headed over to the covered easel. “Ready?”
Keslie and Dominic nodded and Livi pulled off the tarp. Behind it was an acrylic painting of someone who looked like an older version of Livi, except for the fact that her eyes were brown instead of blue.
“He painted my mom,” Livi said, tears shimmering in her eyes even as she grinned.
“She’s beautiful,” Keslie said. “And your dad is a great artist.”
Livi nodded. “Her name was Kim. Dad practiced a lot to get this good. He wanted to be able to do Mom justice. And I think he did.”
Keslie nodded and the three of them stood in silence. There wasn’t much that could be said.
After a few minutes Livi brushed a couple of tears from her eyes and sniffed. “So do you guys want to do anything in particular? Listen to music, chat, draw…”
“I can’t draw,” Dominic said.
“Yeah, it’s like the only thing he can’t do,” Keslie said with a snort.
Livi laughed. “Well then I’d like to see what he comes up with.”
“Oh, I see,” Dominic said with a grin, “You want to see me embarrass myself.”
“Absolutely.” Livi’s grin was equally wide. “Come on. I’ve got pencils in the other room.” She headed down the hall to her room and grabbed a box of colored pencils from her desk and set them on the bed, then hunting down some paper. Keslie and Dominic sat on the bed with its bright pink sheets and Keslie looked at the pencils.
“These are really good quality,” she said.
“Yeah. My dad got them for me for my birthday.”
“When is your birthday?” Keslie almost couldn’t believe she hadn’t asked yet.
“July fifteenth. When’s yours?”
“September twenty-seventh.”
“You’re almost seventeen, then! I’ll have to get you something.”
“You don’t have to do that…”
“Sure I do.” She pulled the paper from another drawer and set it on the bed, bounding onto the bed herself. She looked over at Dominic. “When’s yours?”
“October second.”
“So yours is coming up, too.”

“Kind of soon.”
Livi got up and grabbed a couple of regular pencils and handed one to each of them as she climbed back onto the bed. “Almost forgot these.”
Keslie took the pencil and a piece of paper and looked around the room. “Do you have a clipboard I can use?”
Livi nodded and grabbed three from a drawer of her desk, handing one to each of them. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem.”
Keslie thought for a moment before deciding on what to draw and set to work. They drew in silence for half an hour before Livi declared she was done. She lifted up her clipboard to show them. She’d drawn a mermaid and fully colored it in. It was a bit of a cartoon-ish style, which fit Livi well, and it was expertly done.
“Tada! It’s supposed to be you as a mermaid, Kez.”
“Me? Well… Thanks?”
“Yes, that’s the appropriate response,” Dominic said, nudging her with his shoulder.
Keslie rolled her eyes at him. “Thanks, Livi.”
“You’re welcome.” Livi grinned and traded the piece of paper out for another. “You’re next, Dom.”
“I expect nothing less than a masterpiece,” Dominic teased.
“Of course. As if I could give anything less.”
Keslie smiled and returned to her own drawing.
Another half hour passed and finally Dominic held up his picture. It was an anchor being hauled down by tentacles, and Keslie stood corrected. He could draw after all. He must not have been trying the times he’d shown her his drawings.
“You liar,” Keslie said. “You told me you couldn’t draw. And proved it. What’s this?”
“I don’t know. Must be some newfound talent I never knew I had.” He winked.
Keslie stuck her tongue out at him and looked over as Livi raised her own picture.
“All finished,” she announced.

Merman Dominic wore a permanent wink, and his open eye sparkled. His dark hair was drawn flopping over his face, and he had a dark blue tail.
“Well, I think that suits him perfectly,” Keslie said.
“Don’t you, though? I think it’s certainly a masterpiece.”
“I think I’ll be the judge of that,” Dominic said. He studied the piece with narrowed eyes for several moments before finally drawing away and nodding. “It’ll pass.”
“I think it does more than pass, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” Keslie said. “Definitely.”
“So there.” It was Livi’s turn to stick her tongue out at Dominic.
“I admit, I have been outnumbered.” He looked at Keslie’s drawing. “You’ve been working for a while. What’s yours look like?”
Keslie held it up. It was an all-pencil piece of the ocean.
“That’s great, Kez! I didn’t know you could draw that well. That’s amazing!”
Keslie blushed and set the picture back in her lap, crossing her arms over it and blushing. “Thanks.”
“It really is great,” Dominic said. “It’s better than I could do with just pencils. The shading is incredibly detailed for having only used a pencil.”
Keslie shrunk farther into herself. Compliments were not her strength. “Thanks.” Her voice was barely audible, and she knew she was probably beet red.
“All right,” Livi said, “Let’s not embarrass her too quickly. I’m sure there’ll be enough of that now that you two are a couple. There’s to be much teasing from the peanut gallery, I can assure you of that.” She pointed to herself.
“I would expect nothing less,” Dominic said. “You’re the queen of teasing.”
“Why thank you.” Livi looked around her dresser and finally pulled out a rhinestone tiara. She set it on her head and crossed her eyes with a hand under her chin. “Don’t I just look fabulous as a queen?”
Keslie couldn’t hide her laugh.

The rest of the day continued much the same, with lots of teasing and talking and laughter.
Finally around seven o’clock Keslie headed home.
“Hey, Keslie,” her mom called. From the kitchen, judging from the sound.
“Hey, Mom.”
“How did the study date go?”
“It went well. After that we headed to the beach and then hung out at Livi’s house.”
“Sounds fun.”
Keslie headed into the kitchen where her mom was working on her book on her laptop. “Hey Mom.”
“Yeah?”
“How does dating work?”
Mrs. Bardell looked up at her. “Are you and Dominic finally getting together?”
“I know you’re my mom, but how did you know and why was that your first assumption?”
“Kes, you and Dominic have been friends for who-even-knows-how-long. I knew you were bound to get married sometime or other.”
“Mom! We’re not getting married yet! We’re going on one date to see a movie tomorrow night! Don’t jump years ahead just yet.”
Mrs. Bardell smiled a bit. “Well, I don’t know because your dad and I met each other and got to know each other as we dated. I’m not sure how it’ll work for you and Dominic. I guess you’ll just have to find out.”
“Gee, that’s helpful.”
“Sorry, Sweetie. But I know Dominic’s a good guy and he’ll take care of you.”
“I wasn’t worried about that. I’m more worried about things being perpetually awkward between us and Livi.”
“Livi’s pretty easygoing, so I don’t think she’ll mind if you two are together, and I doubt that your relationship with Dominic will change much aside from the fact that you’ll probably be more romantic. You’ll still sit and talk for hours and laugh together and all that stuff that you do now and have been doing for years. Don’t worry about it.”

Keslie headed up to her room, and after a long time of worrying about things, she finally fell asleep.
**********
The next day went by quickly. School, a study meeting at Keslie’s house – with both Livi and Dominic – and then from there to the movie.
Keslie stood nervously by as Dominic paid for the tickets and then followed him awkwardly into the theater. They found a seat near the middle of the room and took their seats. Keslie was rather stiff, and Dominic set a hand on hers.
“Hey, just pretend we’re seeing a movie as friends.”
Keslie nodded with an appreciative smile, and after a few minutes she finally relaxed.
She enjoyed the movie as well as she thought she would, and they left the theater talking about it.
“I loved the part where she grabs the trithium and runs off with it,” Keslie said. “The way they outwitted Derk was great.”
Dominic nodded. “My favorite part was the opening scene, actually.”
“That was good too. It reeled me in immediately.”
Dominic nodded.
A few raindrops dripped onto Keslie as Dominic offered her his hand. “Too early for hand-holding?”
Keslie shrugged. “Why not?” She took his hand, which was rather warm despite the cold inside the theater, and they warmed her own cold fingers slowly.
They headed to Keslie’s house as the rain increased, until they were standing in a downpour outside her front door.
“I love being on the beach in the rain,” Keslie said. “Want to come?”
Dominic nodded and Keslie tugged him around the house onto the beach. The sand was already smooth and squishy in the rain, like mud between Keslie’s toes as she removed her sandals.
They played around in the rain for a while, dancing and splashing in the waves and getting each other even wetter than they already were.

After a while Dominic drew a heart in the sand with his finger.
“You know how cliche that is, right?” Keslie asked.
Dominic shrugged. “Oh well. I kind of like using them and making fun of them.”
“True. Making fun of cliches is always fun. I once read a book where the villain did that. The heroes kept speaking in cliches and he kept making fun of them. It was really fun to read. He also made a whole lot of puns, which was great.”
“Puns are punderful.”
Keslie swatted Dominic’s shoulder as he winked. “You’re terrible.”
“Of course. I’m punbearable.”
“Dominic!”
“Oh come on. You know you love me. And my puns. You’re punable to resist them.”
She swatted at him again as he laughed.
“Hey! Stop punching me!”
Another swat, until she was chasing him around the beach. Finally he grabbed her arm as she swatted at him and pulled her close to him so that they shared the same breath. They stood there for a moment and Keslie barely breathed. She realized that she’d never had a crush on Dominic because she’d merely skipped that step. She didn’t have to have a crush on him, because she already loved him. The electric silence was broken when Dominic spoke.
“May I?”
Keslie nodded just a bit and he kissed her. He pulled away a minute later and she looked up at him. She could get used to them being together.

They quietly walked along the beach in the rain for a while before heading home, and as Keslie headed up to her room that night she wondered at how her small family had grown and changed so much in just a few weeks.

Jac and Jiles – Short Story Sunday

*cough cough* Oops. This is late. Hopefully it’ll be the only one. :P This is something I decided to write because in several writing books and articles I read they used Jack and Jill as an example and expanded on it a little bit, so I started thinking about ways I could put a spin on it. This is what I came up with, and I hope you enjoy it. :)

 

Jack and Jill went up a hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jacalyn tightened the strap of her travel bag to her saddle and looked over at Jiles, who was saying farewell to his sisters. He finished and embraced each of them before mounting up on his black stallion. Jacalyn mounted her own chestnut stallion and patted its neck.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

Jiles nodded, tears shimmering in his eyes.

They left the small village and Jacalyn pulled out the map from her saddlebag. It was sixty miles from their current position to the Red Hill that they were headed for, and they’d packed provisions enough for six days, which should be plenty if everything went according to plan. She tucked the map away again. It was a big if.​

“Hey,” she told Jiles, “It’ll be okay. We’ll come back.”

Jiles nodded, but his eyes revealed the same doubt that ate at her own heart. Two and a half days travel each there and back, and a simple climb up the hill to fetch the water from the Traitor’s Well, but the Well itself could be a challenge. Only one person had ever come back from the Traitor’s Well, and he with severe injuries covering his whole body.

“Jac,” Jiles said.

“Yeah?”

“Will the water really be able to save my mother?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”

“Yeah,” Jiles muttered, “To go to the man-eating Well.”

“I’m sure it will. The legends say it will.”

“The legends. Yeah. Those are trustworthy. They’re bedtime stories, Jac. They’re used to entertain children. Who knows if they’re really true or not?”

“Jile, you’d do anything to save your mom, right?”

Jiles looked down at the reins he was holding. “Yeah,” he muttered reluctantly.

“Then do this for her.”

“But if it doesn’t work than I could never come back and my sisters would lose my mom and me.”

“I know it’s risky. But we have to try, right?”

Jiles nodded. “Yeah.”

They rode in uncomfortable silence for a long while, Jacalyn focusing on the movement of the horse beneath her and the direction of the path before them. The path would only last until they reached the Elmanor Woods; beyond that, they were on their own, trusting Jacalyn’s navigational skills to get them safely to the Well. They passed few travelers on the road, and Jacalyn wasn’t surprised. Their little corner of the world wasn’t well-traveled. There were a few hamlets sprinkled around, and most people kept to their own homes instead of going on mad men’s quests for man-eating wells.

Jacalyn pulled the map out again just to give herself something to do and looked over the faded lines. The labels near the Red Hill and the Traitor’s Well repeated the message of “turn back” and “DANGER!” and Jacalyn tried to skim over them, but instead her eye was drawn to them. She forced her gaze to the small well drawn on the map. It was colored in black on the map, and Jacalyn wondered if it was actually black or regular stone. The one survivor was long dead of old age, so there was no one to ask.

Jiles yawned and Jacalyn tucked the map away again.

“I’m bored,” Jiles said.

“I know.”

“What games can we play?”

“Like… twenty questions?”

“Or storytelling. Anything but speculation about our quest.”

“We can do twenty questions. Who’s going first?”

“You can.”

“Okay. I’ve got something.”

“Is it smaller than a house?”

“Yes.”

“Is it red?”

“No.”

When the round was solved, it was found to be Jacalyn’s horse, Gilbert. They played several rounds before Jiles stopped.

“This isn’t helping,” he said.

Jacalyn didn’t bother to answer.

“How much longer until we reach the forest?”

Jacalyn pulled out the map and looked it over. “Not long. Maybe about half an hour.” She looked up and saw the sun sinking toward the horizon. “We’ll make camp at the edge of it and go in tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll want to be stuck in the forest past dark.”

Jiles nodded with another yawn. “I’m getting sore.”

“You don’t ride enough.”

“There aren’t really many places to ride.”

“You could just ride around town.”

“That would look silly.”

Jacalyn shrugged. “After my first hunt or two and finding it makes one sore to ride for a long time, that’s what I did.”

“And you looked silly.”

“But it did the job. I got used to the ache.”

Jiles kept his mouth shut.

 

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after

Jacalyn’s time estimate was nearly spot on, and they arrived at the edge of the forest only a few minutes later than estimated. Jacalyn swung down off her horse and Jiles moaned as he did the same. Despite being comfortable in a saddle, Jacalyn was still glad to feel the solid ground beneath her feet after so many hours.

“We’re going to be riding that long every day of this trip?” Jiles asked.

“Yep. Get used to it.” She unharnessed her saddlebag and took a seat on the ground, opening it up to grab two apples from inside, one of which she tossed to Jiles.

“Thanks.” He took a seat across from Jacalyn and she set the bag aside as she took a bite of her apple. The sour juice filled her mouth and she longed for the sweet apples that rarely grew to full size back home.

It began to drizzle as they began another game of twenty questions and Jacalyn put her hood up, wrapping her cloak tight around her to ward off the chill. After only a couple of rounds spent growing miserable with boredom and damp, Jacalyn said it was probably time to go to bed and lay down on the hard ground, her cloak the only thing between her and rocky soil. After at least an hour of speculation about what might happen when and before and after they reached the Well, she finally succumbed to sleep.

Jacalyn rose with the sun, and she had eaten and put the saddlebag back on the horse long before Jiles awoke. She shook him awake and handed him a piece of cheese and a carrot before wrapping her cloak around her once more.

“We need to get going,” she said.

Jiles nodded and took a big bite of cheese before mounting his horse. “How big does the map say the forest is?”

“Thirty miles in each direction.” Jacalyn didn’t have to refer to the map, but knew it by heart from numerous hunting trips. “We should reach the other side at dusk, or maybe a little earlier.” She mounted and looked over at him. “Ready to go?”

Jiles nodded and Jacalyn snapped the reins.

It was still drizzling for the rest of the morning, and by midday it had developed into a downpour.

“Even the weather doesn’t want us to the go to the Well,” Jiles said with an awkward chuckle.

Jacalyn didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on their surroundings.

The forest floor turned to mud, and wet branches snapped at them as they traveled. Both of them had to duck numerous times under some of the lower branches and of course there was the unstopping rain pounding down and soaking through their cloaks all the way to the bone.

Why can’t it rain this much where the crops need it? Jacalyn thought, her mood as dark and dreary as the forest around them.​

A few squirrels could be seen here and there skittering for shelter, but otherwise the forest was quiet and still. Only a hint of sunlight was able to filter through the clouds and trees to reach them, leaving them in near-darkness. There were no birds singing to liven up the consistent pulse of the rain, and no bright flowers to break the dreary dark. Jacalyn could tell it weighed on Jiles’ mood as well. He slumped in the saddle, and his expression held very little sign of life.

For a whole day they rode in silence through the dark, until finally they emerged on the other side. But this wasn’t much better. The sky was still grey, it still rained, and they’d passed from a dark forest into a ruined city that was silent like a tomb.

“This is so much better than the forest,” Jiles said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“At least we’ll have more shelter tonight than last night.” The sun was only faintly visible through a thick veil of clouds, but Jacalyn knew it was setting. She dismounted and tied her horse to a ruined stone gatepost before unfastening the saddle bag and stepping across the threshold of the city. Jiles followed her example.

It took her a few minutes to find what she was looking for, a half-collapsed stone building with a ruined floor. She lowered herself into the cavity that was once the basement and stepped into a corner where the floor above was still mostly intact and only a little bit of the rain dripped in, sitting back against the wall. Jiles sat next to her and she handed him the saddlebag, wrapping her heavy, wet cloak around herself.

“You pick dinner,” she offered.

A roll of thunder rumbled through the encroaching night and she held back a shiver from the cold. Jiles handed her a piece of bread, which she accepted gratefully. She ate it slowly, finding it to be just as bland as she should have expected.

“Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow,” Jiles said.

Jacalyn nodded silently, focusing on nothing.

“Are you okay?”

Jacalyn shrugged. “It’s just the weather, I think.”

“I’m not sure. I feel it too. This overwhelming blanket of hopelessness and dread. I don’t think weather can do that. I’m trying to think nicer thoughts to shoo it away, but there aren’t many happy thoughts to dwell on.”

“You have lots of happy memories with your family.” Jacalyn felt a pang of envy. She’d never had family. She’d always been the black sheep of the village, always an outcast, but never officially, so she never left. That and she cared about Jiles and his family. She knew they needed her hunting and other support, so she stayed to take care of them.

“And you.”

Only the smallest of smiles reached Jacalyn’s lips. “I’m sure you have more with your family. I don’t tend to leave happy memories. No one likes me much. Or trusts me.”

“You’re just different than what they know. People don’t tend to trust what they don’t know and aren’t familiar with.”

“I’m not even all that different. I’m only more willing to go out of the village. And somehow that makes me untrustworthy?”

“Beyond the village are only the ruins and people they don’t associate with. They don’t trust your comfort with those places. They think you’re dangerous.”

“Do I look comfortable here to you?” She hugged her legs to her chest. “I’m freezing and this place gives me the creeps. I’ve only been here twice, and in the daylight, and I’ve always felt a crawly creepiness. I wouldn’t exactly call that comfortable.”

“But the people back home don’t know that. They just know you venture outside of what they know.”

She turned toward him, her dark eyes shining. “Do you think I’m dangerous?”

“Jac, you know I don’t. Not the way they think you are.”

“Then in what way?”

“You’ve trained yourself to fight. No one else in the village has. If someone or something attacked you you’d have them lying dead on the ground in a heartbeat.”

Jacalyn snorted and turned away. “Not really.”

“Maybe not, but it certainly seems that way. We need the kind of dangerous you are. We need someone who knows how to protect us.”

“But if they don’t trust me then why would they let me protect them?”

“Because even if they don’t trust you they know they need someone to protect them. They know they can’t do it themselves. They’re not entirely blind to their lack of skill in that area.”

“Still. If I’m so ‘comfortable’ out here in these ruins, maybe I should just leave and stay here.”

“Jac, you know you can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because even if most people don’t trust you, there are still people who need you and care about you and would miss you if you left.”

“Yeah. Four of them. And one of them is dying.” Jacalyn bit her lip. “I’m sorry. That was entirely rude and uncalled for.”

“You’re probably right. But would you leave if there was even one person who wanted you to stay?”

Jacalyn arched an eyebrow at him. “What question are you veiling under that one?”

“I’m just saying I care about you.”

“And asking if I care about you enough in return that I’d stay if you were the only one who cared. I know you too well for these things to work.” She smirked a bit. “I suppose I might stay if you were the only one who wanted me to, but you’d have to be very convincing.”

“Of course.”

Jacalyn rested her head back against the wall. “Goodnight, Jiles.”

“Goodnight.” He lay down on the floor and she closed her eyes, but sleep didn’t come.

She opened her eyes after a while and looked over to see Jiles’ chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm. Asleep. She turned back to face the wall opposite her – not that she could see it in the dark – and sighed. Jiles was desperately trying to get closer to her, and always had been, but she kept pushing him away and distancing herself from him, certain that one day he’d see like all the others that she didn’t belong. He wouldn’t trust her, either, and he’d turn away. But it grew harder and harder as time went on for her to keep herself distant from him. He really did care about her, and he was the only one. Sure, his mom and sisters didn’t mind her, but neither did they care about her like he did.

With a million thoughts swirling in her mind, her eyes finally drifted closed and she slept.

 

Up Jack got and home did trot

As fast as he could caper

Jacalyn awoke and squinted against bright morning sun. She stifled a smile and looked over to see Jiles already awake. He handed her an apple.

“Good morning,” he said with a smile.

“Morning.” She took the apple and bit into it. It almost seemed sweeter than most, but she knew that couldn’t be. She rose from her spot on the floor and moved to the edge of a strong section of the upper floor, straining to reach it and lever herself up onto it. Jiles tossed her the saddlebag and she set it aside before helping him up.

“How many times have you practiced that?”

“Three times, now, but I pull myself up onto high tree branches fairly often.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

Jacalyn led them back to the entrance and saw that both horses were gone. “Uh oh.”

“We can still make it without them, right?”

“Yeah, but it’ll be a day longer to get there and two days longer to get back.”

“We can do it.”

“What’s made you so optimistic all of a sudden?” She slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

“For one thing, the weather’s a lot nicer. For another thing, this place is actually kind of pretty. And for a third thing… I actually have no idea. I just have a feeling things are going to be fine.”

“And feelings are always trustworthy.” Jacalyn sounded incredulous, but she felt a bit of that optimism, too. Which just made her distrust it all the more. “Let’s just go. We want to get as early a start as possible. There’s still twenty miles of ruined city, if I remember correctly, and we’ll have to hurry if we want to make it out before nightfall.”

They started through at a brisk pace and as Jacalyn walked she realized the ruins actually were kind of beautiful. Moss grew in the cracks and crevices of the stone walls and pillars scattered throughout, both those standing and those fallen, and vines curled around everything, displaying delicate white flowers that shimmered in the bright sunlight. Against her better judgement, she began feel comfortable as she walked. It didn’t seem like there could be anything dangerous, even as a tiny voice in the back of her mind nagged at her that something was definitely wrong.

Despite the nagging worry, they crossed the ruins without any problems and talked for a long while after nightfall before going to sleep.

 

Jacalyn awoke and woke Jiles, tossing him an apple as he sat up. Sun still shone bright, but Jacalyn’s feeling of security was no longer so overwhelming.

“How long before we get there?” Jiles asked, taking a bite of his apple.

“We should get there late in the day today.” Jacalyn slung the saddlebag over her shoulder.

Jiles nodded and stood up, taking off his cloak and draping it over his arm. “Let’s go, then. Almost there, right?” He smiled.

Jacalyn returned the smile, but her worry and reason was beginning to creep back, along with the same sense of dread that she’d had in the woods and their night in the ruins. Instead of giving voice to her concerns, she started walking, with Jiles right beside her.

Their travel that day was uninteresting, mostly across grasslands with the sun shining down on them. Jacalyn squinted against the bright light and wished for a hat to block it.

Finally, as the sun began to lower in the sky, she saw a hill in the distance, and a dark shape on top. The grass on the hill was unnaturally green, and Jacalyn wondered if there was anything they could do to make the soil back home that fertile.

“There it is,” she said, her voice quiet. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable that everything would turn out okay, but as they arrived the majority of the weight of worry lifted from her shoulders. They’d gotten this far, at least.

They climbed the hill and Jacalyn let her gaze roam the well. The stone was an ordinary color, the inside bearing a bit of a reddish cast to it, not the black portrayed on the map, and the depths were shadowed. The sun didn’t reach the liquid below, blocked by a cap over the well. There was a bucket attached to the winch, already lowered into the darkness.

Jiles started to turn the winch, and it creaked as he did so. In a moment something began floating up from the depths, an orb of dark red. As it neared the cap, it stopped and formed into the rough shape of a human.

“You seek the healing water of the Well,” the thing spoke, shimmering like liquid. It was not a question, but a statement.

“Yes,” Jiles said.

“Do you know the price of the Well?”

“No.”

What might have been an amused smile caused the thing to shimmer and shift. “Then you may find yourselves unable to pay. Or rather… unwilling.”

“Why? What’s the price?”

“First, why do you want the water?”

“My mother is dying.” Jiles bit his lip. “Please. Tell us what the price is.”

“Dying, eh?” It was hard to read the thing’s expression, but Jacalyn thought it might have shifted its gaze from Jiles to her and back. “Well then… a steep price indeed. You see, the power of the water requires that the injuries to be healed be substituted onto another.”

“You mean… Instead of my mother dying, I’ll have to?”

“You or your friend.” The thing’s gaze seemed to shift to Jacalyn again, lingering for a moment before swapping back to Jiles.

“I’ll do it,” Jacalyn said. The words came unbidden to her lips, but she knew she had to do it.

“No,” Jiles protested, turning his gaze toward her. “You can’t.”

“Well you certainly can’t.” Jacalyn’s dark eyes rested on Jiles. “You have people who need you. I doubt that anyone in your family would approve of you substituting yourself for your mother. I, on the other hand, don’t have anyone holding onto me. Except you.”

“Yes, and I can’t bear to see you go.”

“It’s me or your mother, and you know there’s only one option to that choice.” She removed the saddleback from her shoulder and offered it to him.

Jiles pressed his mouth closed, his eyes pleading. “Don’t do this,” he whispered after a while.

“I have to, Jiles. I won’t let you do it.” Jacalyn dropped the saddlebag on the ground and turned toward the floating thing. “How does it work?”

“Well, since the mother’s dying you’ll have to forfeit your life.” The creature seemed almost amused. “Your blood will be added to the soil here.”

Jacalyn didn’t like the sound of the word ‘added’ in that sentence, but she nodded. “Do it, then.”

“You’ll have to plunge into the well.”

“Jac, please don’t do this.”

Jacalyn ignored Jiles and stepped onto the well’s edge, sitting on the ledge and letting her legs dangle. She looked down into the dark depths and took a deep breath. She turned toward Jiles with an apology in her eyes. “Goodbye, Jiles. Take care of your mom and sisters, all right?”

Jiles shook his head, tears beginning to shimmer in his eyes. “Please don’t, Jac. Please don’t.”

Jacalyn let her gaze remain on Jiles as she slipped herself off the stone wall of the well into the darkness below.

“JAC!” Jiles screamed her name, gripping the edge of the well so hard the stone cut into his hands and looking down. “No…” He fell back from the well and clapped a bloody hand over his mouth, muffling the sobs that racked his body. “Jac…”

“Don’t let her sacrifice be for nothing,” the Shimmer said. “Draw the water.”

Jiles couldn’t move for a moment, staring at the well that had taken his best friend with wide eyes. Finally he staggered toward the well, his mind entirely blank, and winched the bucket upward. It passed right through the Shimmer and Jiles rested the bucket on the edge of the well, recoiling when he saw that the liquid within was red.

“What is this?” he choked.

“Blood, of course. It fuels the magic.”

Jiles gagged and turned to retch into the grass.

“Unless you’d rather lose both the girl and your mother…”

Jiles stood with his hands on his knees, shuddering uncontrollably. “None of this happened how I imagined…”

“It rarely does.”

Jiles stumbled back to the bucket and struggled not to gag again. He opened the waterskin he’d brought and filled it with the blood. “Please let this work,” he whispered.

“I make no assurances.”

Jiles’ eyes flicked to the Shimmer, wild with rage and pain. “You mean my best friend just died and you can’t even promise it was worth anything?”

The Shimmer giggled and shattered into red droplets that fell back into the well.

Jiles screamed, allowing the rage and pain to surge out of him. He imagined the scream leaving angry red marks in the air, like jagged lightning bolts.

When the scream was done, he collapsed to the ground, his eyes closing, and tumbled down the hill. The waterskin fell from his fingers and spilled out in the grass, and he fell down beside it. He didn’t care about the bumps and bruises, dwelling on the physical pain to avoid the pain of losing Jac. A strangled sob passed his lips and he just lay there for a long time. The sun sank and left him there in the dark, until finally he opened his eyes and looked up at the sparkling stars. He’d ordinarily find them beautiful, but now their twinkling seemed to mock him. They seemed almost joyful and so out of place amidst his pain.

He got up, ignoring the twinkling lights above. He picked up the waterskin and capped it, shaking it to make sure there was at least a little bit of liquid remaining inside. He climbed the hill and picked up the saddleback, slinging it over his shoulder before shoving the bucket back into the well. The winch spun loose with the weight and he picked up his cloak, which he’d dropped after Jacalyn tipped herself into the well.

His torn hands stung in the cool night air as he trudged back toward the ruins.

He barely kept track of the time it took him to get home. He didn’t stop until he collapsed at the border between the ruins and the forest, and after that didn’t stop until he was home and he was collapsing on the doorstep. His sister Marie helped him inside and into bed and asked him what happened, but he was too tired to answer. He succumbed to sleep.

 

When Jill came in how she did grin

To see Jack’s paper plaster

Mother vexed did whip her next

For causing Jack’s disaster

Jiles awoke and staggered into the kitchen, taking a seat at the table to find a bowl of porridge already set out for him. His mother was up and about in the kitchen, cleaning things up and looking quite well.

“You’re better,” Jiles said.

“That water you brought me did wonders.” She smiled at him. “It didn’t taste like water, but I suppose magical water wouldn’t.”

Jiles swallowed. “No, I guess not.” His stomach flipped as he looked at his porridge, and he shoved it away.

“Are you all right? And where’s Jacalyn? I haven’t seen her yet this morning. Ordinarily she’d be here by now.”

Jiles choked as he held back a sob. “She- She didn’t come back.”

His mother’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“She had to- She-” He couldn’t continue, nor could he hold back his tears any longer. He broke, feeling like a pottery jar that shattered into a million pieces and let its contents pour out.

His mother came over and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s all right. You can tell me when you’re ready.”

 

It took a long time for him to be ready to tell her. It was a full week before he finally gathered up the courage to go to her. He stood by the garden gate, on the opposite side from his mother as she planted a new bed of petunias she knew wouldn’t grow. Finally she looked up and must have seen the stricken look on his face for she set her gloves aside immediately and came over to the gate.

“She’s dead, Momma.”

His mother came through the gate and wrapped him in her arms. “Oh sweetheart. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“The Well, it- One of us had to take your injuries. She gave herself up.” He swallowed hard. “She said I have more people who need me. But… But I need her, Momma! I miss her so much…” He choked and buried his head in her shoulder. “I want her back, Momma.”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She stroked his hair. “Oh sweetheart… If I’d known I would never have let you two go. Never.”

“I know, Momma. Neither would I.”

Jiles disappeared into the tears and grief, allowing himself to be swept away. Jac was gone.

Friendship Bracelets & Seashells – Short Story Sunday

Y’all remember Keslie from Sea Glass & Pressed Flowers, right? Well… I might have gotten attached to her and planned a whole series of short stories with her as the main character. This is the second of currently five planned short stories following her and her friends (as will be introduced mostly in this story), and hopefully you like them, because there are going to be several, lol. Enjoy. :)

 

“Keslie Bardell, would you please pay attention when I’m talking to you?”

Keslie’s gaze snapped up to the front of the classroom and she turned beet red. This was at least the fifth time she’d been caught gazing out the window in class today. “Yes, Miss Pieterse.” All eyes turned to Keslie, but as soon as the teacher started talking again they looked away.

“Thank you. Now as I was saying, the correct way to shade a sphere is to….”

Keslie’s mind wandered again. She was missing her dad again, as usual. She drew her gaze away from the window for the umpteenth time and decided to set her attention to listing off as many things as she could about each student in the room.

Dominic Cole. Running back for the school football team, best friend since who-knows-when, barista at the Piano Shoppe Cafe.

Teresa Kyle. Cheer captain, semi-friend semi-acquaintance, loves painting.

Her gaze stopped on the new girl. Livi Brooklyn? She didn’t really know much about her, but she seemed quite absorbed in her classes all day. Unlike Keslie… The girl had silky black hair that fell in waves to drape around her shoulders, and her Asian features were quite pretty. She wore bright yellow Converse, which immediately made Keslie think of Dominic; they were his favorite kind of shoe.

The bell rang and Mrs. Pieterse gave them their assignment. “On Friday I’d like a piece of work that shows any pencil techniques you remember from last year. You’re dismissed.”

Keslie hurriedly stuffed her supplies into her backpack, making it even heavier than it already was and hurried out of class to find her mom. The red SUV wasn’t at the sidewalk yet, which surprised her. She saw someone skip up beside her, bright colors catching her vision out of the corner of her eye. She turned to see Livi standing beside her, a pink floral backpack slung over her shoulder, bright yellow top almost neon and pink skirt the color of bubble gum.

Livi turned to Keslie and extended a hand. “Hi,” she said with a bright grin. “I’m Livi Brooklyn. I’m riding with you to dance class.”

Keslie shook her hand. “Keslie Bardell.” She almost winced. Of course Livi already knew that. She’d been called out several times by name. “You dance?”

Livi nodded, dropping Keslie’s hand. “Since I was little. It reminds me of my mom. She was a dancer. She died when I was five. It almost makes me feel like she’s here again when I dance.” Another bright smile. Her teeth were almost perfectly white.

“That’s cool,” Keslie said, at a loss for words. Livi was more talkative than anyone she’d met before, and she was shocked she spoke so freely of her deceased mother.

“What does your mom do?”

“She’s a journalist. She’s working on writing a book right now, too.”

“That’s cool. Does she write for magazines or the paper?”

“The paper.”

“I’ll have to buy one later. What about your dad?”

“I’m not sure, actually. I think he’s a piano teacher. He lives up in Nebraska.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” Keslie gave a wry smile. “What about your dad?”

“He’s an architect.” The red SUV pulled up. “Is that your mom?”

Keslie nodded.

Livi skipped over to the car and slipped into the back seat, and Keslie walked around the other side and got in. “Hi mom.”

“Hi sweetie. Hello, Livi.”

“Hello, Mrs. Bardell.”

Livi talked Keslie’s ear off the whole drive, and Keslie tried to pay attention. In truth she was a little overwhelmed, but she didn’t want to be rude. Livi rode home with them after dance and skipped up to the door after Mrs. Bardell.

“My dad won’t be home until six,” she explained, “So your mom offered to let me stay until he gets back.”

“Dominic and I actually were planning on studying together this afternoon…” Keslie said, looking at her mother.

“Oh. Well I can stay out of the way if you need me to. Or I could help out? Either one works for me. You live right on the beach, so I could certainly amuse myself while I wait.” She grinned.

“Um…”

“I’ll get you girls some cookies,” Mrs. Bardell said.

“Thanks!” Livi said.

“I’ll see what Dominic says,” Keslie said with a polite smile. “Do you want to leave your backpack in my room?”

Livi nodded and followed Keslie up the stairs to her bedroom at the end of the hall. Keslie set her backpack on the bed and Livi tossed hers with it, but her attention was on the sea glass sun-catcher in the window. She brushed it with her fingers.

“This is beautiful! Did you make it?”

Keslie nodded.

Livi’s attention was riveted on the sun-catcher for several more minutes before it was drawn to a framed piece above the bed, pressed daisies on a bright blue background. “This one too?”

Keslie nodded again. “My dad and I pressed flowers up in Nebraska when we went to visit my grandparents one year, before he and my mom split up. I kept them in a tin for a long time.”

“They’re beautiful like this.”

“Thank you.” The doorbell rang. “That’ll be Dominic. I’ll be back in a minute.” Keslie rushed down the stairs and opened the door. Dominic stepped inside, his backpack over his shoulder.

“Hey, Keslie.” He smiled, making his blue eyes sparkle under a crop of black hair.

“Hey, Dominic. Livi Brooklyn is here, so she might be studying with us.”

Dominic nodded. “She seems cool. We talked a bit in the hallway before class today.”

“She’s very chatty.”

Mrs. Bardell came out of the kitchen with a plate of fudge-striped cookies on a plate. “Hello, Dominic. Would you like some cookies?”

“Yes please.” He took a couple of cookies. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Bardell looked at Keslie. “Is Livi upstairs?”

Keslie nodded.

“Here, take this up with you.” She handed her the plate.

“This is dangerous, Mom.” A teasing smile came onto Keslie’s face.

“I trust you.” Mrs. Bardell winked and headed back through the kitchen to the dining room, where she’d had her laptop set up for the past several days.

Dominic took a bite of cookie and followed Keslie upstairs. Keslie set the plate on her desk, across from the bed, and Livi rushed to grab cookies like a magnet drawn to metal.

“Hi, Dom,” Livi said with her mouth full of food. She waved.

Dominic waved back with a smile. “Hello, Livi. How are you?”

“Excellent, now that I have cookies.” She gave a crumb-filled grin.

“I’m sure it was just unbearable before that,” Dominic joked, his eyes dancing.

“Oh yes. Absolutely.” Livi swallowed the cookie and grinned.

The study session flew by, Livi and Dominic joking and teasing the whole time and Keslie keeping them on track as necessary.

Livi looked at the digital clock by Keslie’s bed. “It’s seven o’clock already! I’m surprised my dad hasn’t come to get me.” She laughed.

“I guess you’d better get home,” Keslie said, a little disappointed to see her go.

“Yeah. I just live a few doors down. 221.”

The three of them collected their supplies back into their respective backpacks and headed downstairs. Keslie heard chatting from the living room as she neared the bottom of the stairs and saw Mrs. Bardell and a middle-aged man with dark hair talking in the living room. She assumed it was Mr. Brooklyn, and her suspicion was confirmed when Livi headed in and hugged him.

“Hi, Dad,” she said, taking a seat on the couch next to him.

“Hello, Sweetheart. Did you have fun?”

Livi nodded. “Dance was awesome, and Keslie and Dominic are a lot of fun.”

“Dominic?” Mr. Brooklyn turned toward the doorway and Dominic waved.

“He and Keslie were studying this afternoon, and Dominic invited me to join them.”

Mr. Brooklyn nodded. “It’s nice to meet you. And you must be Keslie.”

Keslie nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, too. I’m Zach Brooklyn. You can call me Zach.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Come on in,” Mrs. Bardell said. “You don’t have to stand in the doorway all evening.” She smiled. “Zach and Livi are staying for dinner.”

“We are?” Livi said, her blue eyes lighting up.

“Mrs. Bardell was kind enough to invite us to stay,” Zach replied.

“Lilah is fine,” Mrs. Bardell said. Oh, but I should go check on the meatloaf. I’ll be right back.” She disappeared into the kitchen and Keslie rubbed her arm.

“So you’re sixteen?” Zach asked.

Keslie nodded.

Zach turned to Dominic. “And you’re…?”

“Seventeen.”

“You have a job?”

“I work at the local cafe with Keslie.”

Keslie shifted her weight.

Zach nodded as Lilah came back into the living room. “The meatloaf’s ready.” She beckoned them toward the dining room.

Dominic leaned toward Keslie as they walked. “If I didn’t know better I’d almost think he was testing me.” A slight smile played at his lips.

Keslie bit the inside of her lip to hide a smile of her own before answering. “I’m sure he was just asking.”

They took seats around the table, grabbing the desk chair from the study and one from the desk in Lilah’s room to give Zach and Livi something to sit on.

Dinner was eaten over casual conversation, and Keslie found that her mother was acting rather strange. Not badly, but strangely. Uh oh…

“You noticed that, right?” Dominic asked as they headed to the door.

“You mean that my mom is acting in a way she hasn’t for over two years? Yeah.” Keslie bit her lip. “I really hope it’s not what I think it is…”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine if it is. Zach seems like a pretty cool guy. And you already know his daughter is awesome.” He smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be fine.” He headed out and put up his jacket hood as he found it was drizzling.

Keslie closed the door behind him and took a deep breath before heading back toward the dining room. ​The other three were standing in the kitchen talking.

“Dinner was delicious,” Zach said, “But we should probably be getting home. I’ll see you tomorrow evening? We can stick with this setup? Not necessarily dinner, since I don’t want to inconvenience you, but…”

“It was no trouble.” Lilah smiled, and Keslie saw a distinct sparkle in her eye. “I loved this setup, actually.”

“All right. Tomorrow evening, then.” He put an arm around Livi’s shoulders and Lilah walked them to the door.

“Wait!” Livi said as they reached the door. She hurried over to Keslie, who was standing on the boundary between the living room and study. “Could I have your phone number?”

Keslie nodded and Livi pulled a flower-shaped notepad and neon yellow pen from her pocket, handing them to Keslie. The number was scrawled onto the pad and the writing tools were handed back.

“Thanks.” Livi hugged Keslie before hurrying back to her dad, tucking the notepad and pen away in her backpack again.

“Goodnight, Lilah.”

“Goodnight, Zach.”

The Brooklyns headed out into the rain and Keslie headed up to her room, flopping on the bed and closing her eyes, trying to banish what she knew was beginning to happen.

“I have to go to work,” Keslie said as Livi bounded into the house ahead of her.

“Okay. I can keep myself occupied.” Livi smiled and opened the fridge to grab the jug of milk.

“Yeah, make yourself at home.” Keslie still wasn’t sure what to make of her cheery neighbor. She was a lot of fun, but she was certainly boisterous. “I’ll be back around four, and of course mom is here for the rest of the afternoon.”

Livi nodded and poured herself a glass. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

Keslie left her backpack on the island and headed back out the door, grabbing her bike and riding to the cafe a few blocks down. She docked her turquoise bike alongside a black one she recognized as Dominic’s and headed inside, a bell above the door heralding her entry.

“Good afternoon, Keslie.”

Keslie waved to the man behind the counter, who was drying out a red ceramic mug, and headed behind the counter, grabbing an apron and tying it around her waist. She headed to the cash register just as a customer entered.

Dominic stepped behind her, filling a cup from the containers along the back wall. “Hey, Keslie.”

She finished taking the order before turning to Dominic. “Hey. Large mocha for here.”

Dominic nodded and set down the cup he’d just filled on the counter. “Green tea with extra honey for Lacy.” The customer came and got her drink, her departure rung from the door bell.

Keslie’s shift seemed to fly by and she hung up her apron with a sigh at four o’clock. Dominic hung his next to hers and turned toward her.

“Are you still up for studying this afternoon?”

Keslie nodded. “Yeah. Livi will probably be joining us again. Her coming home with me is now a normal thing.”

“Sounds good. I’ll ride home with you, then.”

They rode their bikes to Keslie’s house and Keslie spotted Livi out back on the beach, unmistakable in a bright pink bikini.

“I’ll go get Livi,” Keslie said.

The next week followed much the same way, and Keslie saw a distinct relationship growing between her mother and Mr. Brooklyn.

She was in bed Friday night when her phone chirped. She grabbed it from the bedside table and opened a text from Livi.

You see what I see, right?

Keslie took a deep breath before tapping out her reply. Yeah. Love is in the air.

We could be sisters!

Keslie couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. She may not be crazy about her mom being in a relationship, but having Livi as a sister wouldn’t be bad. That would be cool. How do you feel about it?

There was a short lapse before Livi replied.​ I’m not sure. I think I’m happy for them.

Keslie hesitated, looking past her phone at the wall opposite her bed. Yeah. But it hasn’t been very long since she entirely cut things off with my dad. Only about a month.

Mm.

They were divorced two years ago, but he came back to visit about a month ago to see me. She told him to leave again.

I’m sorry. What do you think of my dad?

He’s cool, I guess, but he’s not my dad.

Yeah. Same with your mom. She seems pretty cool. It’s been a long time since I lost my mom, but I still remember her. She was a bit like your mom, actually, but she was a dancer, not a writer.

The conversation went on for another hour or so before Keslie glanced at the clock and saw it was already midnight and told Livi goodnight. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The phone rang and Keslie picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hey, Kez. It’s Livi. I was wondering if you wanted to come over today and hang out.”

“Sure. I’ll ask mom.”

“Dad already talked to her last night. She said it’s fine.”

“All right. I’ll be over in five minutes.”

“Cool! See ya!”

The connection clicked and Keslie hung up, heading up to her room to slip on a pair of sandals before heading two doors down to Livi’s house. She had barely knocked when the door opened and Livi’s beaming face greeted her.

“Hey! Come on in!” Keslie stepped inside and Livi closed the door. “I invited Dominic over, too. He’ll be here in just a couple of minutes.”

Keslie nodded, biting the inside of her lip to keep from smiling. Livi’s joy was contagious.

Livi chattered at Keslie before the doorbell rang and Dominic came in.

“Hey, Dom! How are you?”

Dominic grinned. “I’m doing well. How are you?”

“Fabulous as always!” Livi twirled, her yellow skirt spinning around her. “Come on, we can chat in my room.”

The two guests followed Livi up the stairs and into a room that was painted – surprise, surprise – bright yellow. Prisms were set up all over the room to reflect rainbows on everything, and there were numerous bright paintings hanging on the walls.

“Did you do all those?” Dominic asked, pointing to a painting of an autumn forest next to the window.

“Yep! Those were a lot of fun. That one’s my favorite. I painted it last year when I went to visit my grandparents for Thanksgiving. They live on a farm with a lot of wooded areas behind it, and I always have a lot of fun exploring. I update the painting every year, sometimes with paints, sometimes with pencil. It depends on my mood that year. I’m looking forward to going again this year. Maybe you could come.”

“That sounds like a cool place.”

“The coolest. They grow pumpkins, apples, and corn, mostly. They have a couple of horses, too, and Jake has a cat named Pumpkin.”

“Who’s Jake?” Dominic asked.

“He’s their only employee. They’ve kind of adopted him as a grandson, too, so he’s part of the family now. I think you’d both like him. He has a really cool accent.”

“These are cool,” Dominic said, flipping through a collection of vinyls that sat in a box next to a record player.

“Thanks! I’ve collected them for years. I love retro stuff. Records, polaroids, stuff like that.” She grabbed a polaroid camera from her desk. “I keep meaning to get you guys together so we can get a picture. We should do that today. We should head onto the beach and get a picture. I don’t actually listen to those super often, though. I tend to listen to my iPod instead. It’s got a lot of good music on it, too. And I have, like, five pairs of headphones.”

“You’re really into music, aren’t you,” Dominic asked with a chuckle.

“Yep. It’s an escape of mine. Ooh, you know what? I think I have some string around here. We could make friendship bracelets!”

Keslie grinned and Dominic laughed.

“You’re such a flibbertigibbet,” Dominic said.

“I know. My dad calls me that all the time.” Livi rolled her eyes with a grin. “One of his nicknames for me is Gibby, for that reason.” She dug through one of the drawers in her desk and pulled out a package of string. “Here we are. Come on. We can sit on the beach and make them. Maybe we can find some seashells to add on.” She grabbed her camera and rushed down the steps and through the living room to the back door. Dominic and Keslie followed, and Keslie closed the sliding door behind her.

Livi was already to the very water’s edge by the time Keslie got there, and Dominic was only a few steps ahead of the blonde.

“This is a nice spot. I’m glad Dad picked it.” Livi plopped down on the sand and opened the package of string, pulling out the brightest colors she could find and handing the package off to Dominic, who was sitting between the two girls now. “Aw crab-apples! I forgot to grab a pair of scissors!” She jumped up and ran inside, rushing back a moment later with a small pair of bright pink scissors. There were happy face stickers all over the handle.

Livi got up and looked around for seashells several times as they were weaving their bracelets and had soon amassed a small pile in front of them. It took her almost twenty minutes to finish hers, because she kept getting distracted, while Keslie had two done in that time. It helped that Keslie had drawn from Livi’s pile, with permission of course, instead of having to hunt the beach for them.

“There we go!” Livi held up her rainbow-colored bracelet with a broad smile on her face. “All finished!” She handed it to Dominic. “Here you go.”

He tied it around his wrist and handed her the one he’d finished, a bright pink and yellow one.

“Aw, it’s perfect!” She tied it one with a grin and started to work on a second bracelet.

In two hours all three of them had wrists covered in bracelets, each one unique.

“Now we have to get a picture of our wrists,” Livi said, “Because this is cool.”

She got a picture of their arms and tucked it into her pocket so the sun wouldn’t ruin it.

“Let’s get some goofy pictures,” Dominic said.

“I don’t make good silly faces,” Keslie protested.

“Oh it’ll be fine,” Livi said. “And even if the faces aren’t great, it’ll still be fun.” She grinned. “Let’s do it.”

Keslie followed them onto Livi’s back porch, pretending to be reluctant but truthfully trying not to grin. Hanging out with Dominic and Livi had quickly become one of her favorite things to do because they were such fun to be around and were always up to something. They were basically the twins while she was the responsible older sister who pretended to be stern but truly loved watching them tease and play around.

Dominic wrapped his arms around both their shoulders and went into a cross-eyed grin, while Livi stuck her tongue out and winked. Keslie felt lame doing nothing more than sticking her tongue out, but she wasn’t creative when it came to silly faces.

“Awesome!” Livi said. “Now we just have to wait for them to develop.” She grinned and wrapped her arms around their necks. “You guys are awesome.”

“It’s cool how we’ve become like siblings in so short a time,” Dominic said with a grin. “I mean, Keslie I’ve known forever, but still. We didn’t tend to joke around this much.”

Keslie smiled. She definitely wouldn’t mind having Livi for a sister. This was a family she could get used to.

This Is His Story – Short Story Sunday

This is a short story I wrote around Valentine’s Day. It’s sad, sweet romance told mostly in flashbacks. I’m pretty proud of it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

 

I held out my wrist to be scanned before boarding the train and finding Marie, my wife, in the far corner of the car. I sat next to her and she pointed to a man who was boarding.

“I wonder what his story is,” she said.

The man was an interesting character, to be sure. He slipped into a seat and turned immediately to looking absently out the window, fingering a deep red rose in his left hand. He was elderly, probably well into his seventies, and his chin was rough with grey stubble.

*************************************************

A young man stood on the porch in the rain, a deep red rose in one hand and an umbrella in the other, waiting for his fiance to come outside. She slipped out the door and he held the umbrella over them both as they stepped out into the rain and rushed to the car.

He opened the door for her and she slid in. He rushed around to the other side and got in himself, closing the umbrella and setting it in the back seat.

“How are you?” she asked, running a hand over her short brown hair.

“I’m good.” He smiled at her as he started the ignition and buckled up. “How are you?”

“Always good, with you.” She smiled back and buckled.

They drove off toward the auditorium, where Valerie would be singing in an hour.

They arrived and he grabbed the umbrella, unfolding it and walking around the car to open the door for her and hold the umbrella over her. He’d set the rose on top of the umbrella and picked it up at the same time, and now he held it out.

“Oh, this is for you. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

He offered his arm and they walked inside.

“I have to go get ready,” she said, pulling away.

“I’ll see you on stage,” he said with a smile.

She returned it before entering a rehearsal room.

He walked into the performance room and took his seat, looking up at the stage. He’d seen Valerie sing on that stage many times, and she never ceased to amaze him. Her voice was the most beautiful he’d ever heard.

He sat and waited as others filed in and took their seats. A couple of violinists were tuning up on the stage. His toe tapped as he waited, silent, for Valerie to take the stage.

She came out of the wings at precisely seven, and people clapped as she headed to center stage with a broad smile on her face.

“Thank you,” she said. “Welcome. I’m glad to see you all here. I recognize the majority of you. But in this small town, how could I not?”

A ripple of laughter fluttered through the auditorium.

“Anyway, you’re not here to listen to me talk, so I’ll get started. My first song is one that my brother wrote specifically for this occasion, and I’m happy to share it with you. Without any further ado, here is Valentide.”

The violinists gave an intro and Valerie eased into her part, starting soft and growing stronger as she reached the chorus. Her voice was clear and beautiful, and the young man smiled as he listened and was put in awe yet again at her beauty and talent.

He sat in dumbstruck admiration for the entire concert, and barely managed to shake out of it when she left the stage. He headed over to the rehearsal room, where he knew Valerie would be flooded with fans giving her flowers and some even asking for an autograph so they could brag about it when she was famous.

For all their faith in her, she didn’t want to become famous. She only wanted to make people happy with her music. She could be famous, everyone knew it, but he loved her even more for her humility.

He stepped into the room and looked around, spotting Valerie in the middle of a mass of people. They were respectful of personal space, thankfully, but there were a lot of them. He waited at the back until they’d dispersed, watching her gracefully accept bouquets and compliments.

She set the flowers on the piano and slipped on her coat, walking over to him as she did so.

“What did you think?”

“You know what I thought. It was absolutely beautiful. You’re absolutely beautiful.”

She blushed.

“Thank you.”

She picked her flowers back up and he offered her his arm, which she accepted. They walked back outside to see that the rain had faded. Starlight glittered overhead and made the world glisten from its recent rain.

“It’s beautiful,” Valerie murmured.

They walked around to the back of the auditorium, where red and white lights were strung up between lampposts for Valentine’s Day, and he brushed the worst of the water off of a bench for them to sit on.

“I almost forgot!” she said. “I got you something.”

She pulled a small box from her coat pocket and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled the watch from it. He put it on and grabbed a nearly identical box from his own coat pocket and handed it to her.

“I have something for you, too.”

She opened it and lifted the necklace from it, careful with the delicate chain. A heart locket hung from it, and she smiled.

“Thank you, Tristan.”

“Open it.”

She set the pendant on her hand and opened it. There was a picture of the two of them in one side, and the other side was engraved. She read the engraving.

“February fourteenth, five-thousand fourteen. Yours forever, Tristan.”

He held his hand out for the necklace and she handed it to him, turning so that he could place it around her neck. He clasped it lovingly and smiled softly.

“I love you, Valerie.”

“I love you too.”

*****************************​

​I jolted awake as the train stopped. I glanced over at the man for some reason. He was still there, and still just looking out the window absently.

“Good morning,” Marie said.

“It’s morning?”

She nodded.

“We left at midnight, so yeah, it’s morning.” She chuckled.

“He was awake the whole time?” I asked, wondering.

“I don’t know. I fell asleep, too. We passed several stops while you were asleep.”

“Where are we now?”

She pointed up and as if on cue a voice came over the loudspeakers.

“Disembarking at Aneta.”

No one from our car got up to leave, and the man kept gazing out the window as if he’d never heard. Was he deaf, or just entirely lost in thought?

“All aboard!”

A few passengers entered our car and took seats. A little girl waved to us, and we waved back. I saw her look at the old man as she took her seat. Her gaze lingered on him and became interested, almost concerned. After a moment she turned and whispered something to her mother. Her mother nodded and she got up and walked over to the old man, taking a seat next to him and putting a hand on his.

He turned to her and smiled wearily.

*******************************

“Hello, sir.”

The old man turned to the little girl and gave her a weary smile.

“Hello, my dear.”

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Tristan. What’s yours?”​

“Kasey. Are you okay? You look sad.”

“I am a little sad. It’s Valentine’s Day, you know, and I’m going to see my wife.”

“Then why are you sad?”

The train started moving.

“Because my wife isn’t alive anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. Where are you headed?”

“Vacation with my parents.” She pointed. “We’re going to Alexandria Bay.”

“Oh? That sounds fun.”

“Yeah. We go every year whenever Daddy gets time off work. That’s not very often. He has to be careful how he spends it so we can go on vacation. He told Momma.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

She shrugged.

“I’m used to it. And I won’t be too disappointed if we can’t go on vacation one year. It’s no biggie. Do you ever go on vacation?”

“I do sometimes. Not very often anymore.”

“Where’s your favorite place?”

“For vacation or in general?”

“Either one.”

“I like Alexandria Bay for vacation, too, but my favorite place is Abbotsville. That’s where I first met my wife.”

“That’s cool. What was her name?”

“Valerie.”

“Did you and Valerie have any children?”

“No. We both wanted them, but we couldn’t have any.”

“That’s sad.”

“Yes, it is. But we loved each other, and that was enough.” He gave a small smile. “Do you have any siblings?”

“Not yet. But Momma’s gonna have another baby soon. I’m hoping for a baby brother.”

“Brothers are a lot of fun.”

“I think so. My best friend has an older brother and a baby brother and they’re both fun to play with.” She smiled.

“That’s nice. I had an older brother, but he passed away several years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes. Are your parents missing you?”

“No, they said I could stay over here. How did you meet your wife?”

He smiled at the memory.

“We met a long time ago, in choir.”

“Choir. That’s for singing, right?”

“Yes. And she was the most amazing singer I’d ever met. I still haven’t heard any better, actually. She had a beautiful voice.”

*****************************

“Who would like the solo for Path of Moonlight?”

A girl in the back raised her hand, as did a couple other people. She had brown hair cut shoulder length, and her brown eyes sparkled with life.

“Valerie. Would you do it?”

She nodded eagerly and the director beckoned for her to come to the front.

“Let’s take it from the top,” the director instructed.

Tristan could see that Valerie was preparing herself for her solo as she sang by the way she tapped her finger against her thigh and the extra deep breaths she took between lines.

When it came time for the solo, Valerie sang rather softly, but as she gained confidence her voice expanded in power.

Everyone in the choir was awestruck. Her voice was beautifully light and clear.

The solo ended and Tristan stumbled back into the song. The song finished and the director smiled at Valerie.

“Thank you, Valerie. That was beautiful.”

Valerie smiled shyly and blushed down at the floor.

After class, Tristan walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned around.

“Sorry,” Tristan said. “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your voice is.”

“Thanks.” She gave him a shy smile. “I can always hear you in the bass part.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No, no, no! It’s cool! You have an amazingly deep voice! It was a compliment.” She bit her lip a little.

“Oh. Well in that case, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

************************************************

“We became friends not long after that, and we were engaged by the end of high school,” Tristan said with a smile.

“Did you two keep singing?”

“She did. I didn’t, really. I was a lot more into the writing of music than the singing of it, although I still enjoy singing to this day.”

“What kind of songs do you like to write?”

“Different things, depending on my mood. Some are sad, some are sweet, some are powerful and loud. It all depends.”

“I’d like to hear your music sometime.”

“I might just have to share it with you sometime.”

She smiled and he returned it.

His stomach growled.

“Oh! I suppose it’s time to refill the tank.”

She giggled.

“I guess so. Do you mind if I eat with you?”

“Ask your parents.”

She nodded and skipped off to ask, returning in a moment and sliding back into her seat next to him.

“They said it’s fine.”

“You have very trusting parents.”

“Do they have any reason not to trust you?”

“No, but if I were them I might not be so trusting.”

“They’re just right over there.” She shrugged. “They can see us, they’ll know if you do anything bad. And I know you won’t. You’re a good guy.”

“Well, thank you.” He smiled and hailed the attendant as she moved to leave the car.

“Two breakfasts, please.”

She nodded and left, heading for the dining car.

*************************

“You made pancakes?” Valerie asked, coming down the stairs in her pajamas and slippers.

“It’s our first morning as husband and wife, I figured it was worth celebrating.”

He smiled and gave her a kiss.

“You didn’t forget the chocolate chips, did you?”

Tristan gasped in mock hurt.

“Me? Forget the chocolate chips? Never!”

He held out the batter bowl, which held perhaps a few too many chocolate chips.

“It looks perfect.”

“Yeah, let’s just hope it tastes perfect. I’m not the most amazing cook in the world.”

“Here, let me help.”

“No, that’s okay. I’ve got it. You just sit down. This first batch is almost done.”

She smiled and took a seat at the table.

“If you insist.”

He scooped the first three pancakes onto a plate and handed them to her, grabbing a fork for her as well.

“There you go. Enjoy.”

She took a bite and nearly spit it out.

“Tristan! This is completely raw in the middle!”

“I’m so sorry!”

She spit it into a paper napkin and threw it away.

“How about letting me do the rest, okay?”

He nodded and stepped away from the stove as she chuckled.

“Well this is why,” she said. “You’ve got the stove turned up too high.”

She turned it down.

“Sorry, Valerie.”

“It’s okay.” She smiled. “I completely understand. I’m actually a little surprised you didn’t burn them, turned up like that.”

“Was that a backhanded compliment?”

“Yes, that was a backhanded compliment.”

****************************

Tristan smiled at the attendant as she placed a plate in front of each he and Kasey.

“This looks delicious!” Kasey said, picking up her fork to dig in.

“Now aren’t you forgetting something? Or don’t people say grace anymore?”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

“That’s all right.”

She closed her eyes and folded her hands and he said grace.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this trip and for the time we get to spend with each other and for this delicious breakfast we’re about to eat. Amen.”

She opened her eyes and got straight to work on her pancakes.

“Is it good?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously.

“Don’t nod so hard you choke.”

She held back a laugh so as not to spew pancakes everywhere, but her eyes gave it away.

​”Thank you for breakfast,” she said when she’d finished her bite.

“No problem.” He smiled.

“So, why couldn’t you and your wife have children?” She took another bite.

“The government wouldn’t let us.

“Why not? That seems silly.”

“I think so. But I suppose it makes sense. She had a terminal illness and I am not the most emotionally stable person in the universe. They didn’t think we were suited to be parents.”

“What does ‘terminal’ mean?”

“It means they already knew she would die from it.”

“How did they know?”

He shrugged.

“Something in her blood or something, I guess. I don’t know for sure.”

“I’m sorry. What would have happened if you’d had a child anyway?”

“We would have had to put him or her up for adoption.”

“I was adopted.”

“Oh really? That’s interesting. How old were you?”

“About two, I think. I don’t really remember. I’m six now.”

He nodded.

“You’re a grown up young lady then.” He smiled.

“Not really. I’m not as old as my Momma yet.”

He chuckled.

“Well, good luck catching up.”

“Thank you.”

************************************

“Tristan?” Valerie whispered, easing open his office door. He was asleep in his chair, a book in his hand. “Tristan.”

His eyes opened and he looked over at her.

“Yeah?”

“I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“I’m…I’m pregnant.”

“What?”

“I said I’m pregnant.”

“But we’re not allowed-”

“I know. So we’ll have to give up the baby.”

“Oh Valerie.”

He stood and embraced her as a tear ran down her face.

“I don’t want to give him up.”

“I know sweetheart. Neither do I.”

“Is there any way we can avoid it?”

“Not one that we’d be comfortable with doing.”

“You know they’ll encourage us to abort.”

“I know. But we won’t.”

“I know.”

“We have to go tell them.”

“But why? They’ll find out soon enough anyway, won’t they?”

“Yeah, and we’ll get in trouble if they do. They’ll think we tried to hide it or something. We have to tell them now.”

“Tristan, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to.”

“I know that, I do. And I don’t want to go either. But we have to.”

She nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks as they were replaced by fresh ones.

“Let’s go then,” she said. “In the morning.”

Tristan nodded.

“Let’s go to bed.”

*****************************************

The attendant cleared away their dishes.

“I need to scan your chip, sir,” she requested.

He held out his wrist and she scanned it.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you. Breakfast was delicious.”

“Well I didn’t cook it, but you’re welcome.”

She headed out of the car.

Kasey leaned her head against Tristan’s arm and closed her eyes.

“Eating made me sleepy.”

“That’s okay. You can rest.”

He smiled down at her softly and she was soon asleep.

**********************************************

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Marie asked.

“Me too,” I replied.

**********************************************

The doctor entered the hospital room with a clipboard in his hand.

“So, you two are ineligible to become parents, correct?” he asked.

“That’s correct,” Tristan replied.

“Then I’d encourage you to abort. If you don’t, you’ll have to give up your baby as soon as it’s born.”

“We’re aware. And we won’t be aborting. It’s a human life, and we won’t be taking it.”

“Very well. But I will warn you that the next nine months will be very uncomfortable for you.”

“You think we don’t know that?” Valerie asked, tears running down her face. “We’re pregnant with a baby we’re not supposed to have, and you think we don’t know that carrying a baby that isn’t allowed to be my own is going to be ‘uncomfortable’? It’ll be worse than uncomfortable! It’ll be nearly unbearable! It will probably be the most pain I’ve ever been in! We know it will be ‘uncomfortable’!”

“I’m sorry ma’am. I understand.”

“Do you?” she croaked, her voice overtaken by tears.

“There’s more news,” the doctor said.

“About what?” Tristan asked.

“About Valerie’s illness.”

Valerie looked up at the doctor.

“What about it?”

“It’s begun to develop sooner than we expected.”

“How long do I have?”

“Two years, more or less.”

She nodded.

“Is there anything you can do to slow it down?” Tristan asked.

“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” Valerie said.

“I’ll leave you alone now.”

The doctor left the room and Valerie collapsed into tears again. Tristan didn’t say anything, just sat next to her on the hospital bed and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him and holding her close.

*********************************************

Kasey stirred and Tristan looked down at her as her eyes opened.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

She smiled up at him.

“Hi, Mr. Tristan.”

She sat up and glanced over at her parents. Her father was absorbed in a book, and her mother gave her a smile.

“What do you think each of these passengers are like?” she asked. “That girl over there, for instance.” She pointed to a teenage girl with blonde hair cut short. She had earbuds in her ears and was doing something on her tablet.

“What do you think she’s like?”

“She looks lonely. She also looks like she likes music, and music is always good.”

“Not always, but nearly always, yes.”

“Your turn. Pick someone and tell me what you think.”

“I don’t think I should. What if we assume something completely wrong and they hear us and are offended? We don’t want to hurt anyone, or to make assumptions.”

“Don’t you make assumptions automatically? Doesn’t everyone?”

“I suppose so, but there’s no need to say those assumptions out loud. Let’s do something else, all right?”

“All right. Like what?”

“Can you read?”

“Of course I can read, silly! Why? What are we going to do?”

“There’s a newspaper stand over in that corner.” He pointed. “Let’s see if we can find a crossword, shall we?”

She nodded with a smile and headed over to the stand, grabbing a newspaper and bringing it back to Tristan, taking her seat. He pulled a pen from his pocket and uncapped it, flipping to the crossword.

*********************************

Valerie held a newborn in her arms. The baby was completely healthy and smiling up at his mother, but Valerie was pale and had dark rings under her eyes.

“We’ll be taking the baby now,” the nurse said. “I’m very sorry.”

The nurse held out her hands for the baby, but Valerie didn’t hand him over.

“This is my baby.”

“Yes, but you and your husband have been told you’re not allowed to have children. We have to take the baby and send him to an orphanage. It’s protocol.”

“I know, but he’s mine.”

A tear rolled down her face and dripped onto the baby’s. She brushed it away with a trembling finger.

“I understand the pain you must be feeling. If you knew you weren’t allowed children, perhaps you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”

Valerie’s head snapped up and she glared at the nurse.

“How dare you make this out to be our fault! So I have a terminal illness. So what! While I lived I would still love the baby. And Tristan would take perfect care of him both while I was living and after I died. As for his ’emotional instability,’ who knows? Maybe the baby would have helped him with that!”

“Or it might have made things worse. Mrs. Wickersham, hand over the baby.”

“No!”

Her defenses collapsed and she began to sob. The nurse wrenched the baby from her arms.

“No! Please, no…”

Tristan held her, allowing her to cry into his shoulder as his own tears dripped into her hair.

“I’m so sorry, Valerie.”

“Me too.”

Her eyes fell closed and she went limp. He laid her down, beginning to panic.

“Nurse! Nurse!”

*********************************

“Four across is ‘potato,'” Kasey said, pointing.

“So it is.” Tristan filled in the word. “And that completes the puzzle.” He smiled at her and she smiled back.

“What now?”

Tristan glanced out the window a moment.

“It’s getting rather late. You should probably go have lunch with your parents.”

Kasey nodded a bit, disappointed, and headed back to her parents’ table, taking a seat next to her mother.

What a sweet girl, Tristan thought, gazing out the window as he thought back to the last night he’d had with his wife.

**********************************

Tristan held Valerie’s hand, tears threatening to spill down his face. She was unconscious and had been for hours, but he hadn’t left her side.​

“Valerie. You might die tonight, and there are some things I want to tell you before that happens. I don’t know if you can hear me or not. First, I love you. I always have and always will, and ‘even death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.'” He chuckled a bit and a tear escaped. “You introduced me to that movie. Even if you do die tonight, I know I’ll see you again. The best thing you ever did for me was lead me to Christ.” A few more tears streamed down and he wiped them away with his free hand. “I honestly don’t know what to say. The love of my life is dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m helpless.” He shuddered with a sob. “I love you, Valerie.”

He cried until he fell asleep, and the last thing he heard before he fell asleep was a weak, “I love you too, Tristan.”

************************************

Kasey came back over to Tristan an hour or two later.

“Tristan, Abbotsville is on the way to Alexandria Bay, and I was wondering if I could come with you to see your wife. My momma and daddy already said it was okay. They said I should keep you company.”

“You’d like to come with me?”

Kasey nodded, her blue eyes earnest.

“All right. Are you sure it won’t hold up your vacation?”

“No. It’ll be fine. Daddy said so.”

“Well all right then.”

Kasey smiled and skipped back over to her seat with her parents.

*********************************

When Tristan woke up, Valerie’s hand was cold. He glanced at the monitors. Nothing. Flatlined.

A tear slid down his face, releasing a series of sobs like a floodgate.

The doctor came in a few minutes later.

“I’m sorry Mr. Wickersham. We left you alone for the night so as not to disturb you.”

“You should have woken me.” Tristan’s voice was husky.

“I’m sorry. And I offer my deepest, heartfelt apologies. I’m afraid we have to handle the body now.”

Tristan fought down another sob at the words. ‘The body.’

“I’m going to need you to leave, Mr. Wickersham. We’ll let you know when the funeral is arranged.”

Tristan nodded, leaving the room. He gave one last look over his shoulder at her peaceful face, nearly as beautiful in death as it had been in life.

“Goodbye, Valerie.”

*********************************

“Embarking at Abbotsville!” the conductor announced over the loudspeaker.

Tristan got up, grabbing his bag from under his seat. Kasey skipped over to him and slid her small hand into his.

“It’ll be all right,” she said.

The rose he had brought was beginning to wilt by now, but it was as deep red as ever.

“Are your parents coming?” he asked.

“Yeah. They wanted to give you some space, though.”

“Tell them we’re going to Lindenfall Cemetery so they can follow us.”

She nodded and walked back to tell them before returning and slipping her hand back into his.

“Let’s go, then,” Tristan said, stepping out of the train with her and walking over to the shuttle deck. He paid for a shuttle and the two of them slid inside.

“Lindenfall Cemetery, please,” he instructed the shuttle. It gave an affirmation in a mechanical voice before moving off onto the road.

They arrived at the cemetery in ten minutes and stepped out of the shuttle.

“Wait,” Tristan instructed the vehicle.

He led Kasey between the cold stone grave markers to one made of marble. It was collecting dirt, and moss was growing in the letters. Tristan knelt down and wiped it off, pulling the moss away.

Valerie Peterson Wickersham.

May 27th, 5617-February 14th, 5658

“She died on Valentine’s Day?”

Tristan nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

She got on her knees next to him as he rested the rose against Valerie’s tombstone and gently fingered the lettering. Tears slid down his face and she placed a hand on his shoulder. She saw her parents come up a few feet behind and stop out of the corner of her eye.

“I still miss you,” Tristan said. “Always. But I know you’re home now. I just wish I was home with you, sometimes. I love you as much as ever.”

Kasey sat quietly and listened as he spoke, giving him silent support.

A few minutes later they rose and headed back to the shuttle to drive back to the train station.

“I’ll miss you, Tristan,” Kasey said.

“I’ll miss you too, sweetie.”

She smiled a little.

“I’ll see you around, won’t I?”

“Maybe. Maybe I’ll come to Alexandria Bay sometime and see if you’re around.”

“That would be fun.”

“Kasey really connected with you today,” Kasey’s mom said. “She’s usually rather shy. You helped her come out of her shell.”

“I was glad to do it. You have an amazing daughter. She’s very tenderhearted.”

“She is.”

“Goodbye,” Kasey said, hugging the old man and kissing him on the cheek.

“Goodbye, Kasey,” he replied, embracing her back and kissing the top of her head.

Kasey and her family boarded the train.

“Departing Abbotsville!” the conductor announced.

As the train pulled away, Kasey leaned out the window and waved to Tristan. He smiled and waved back before turning back toward the shuttle deck and heading to his hotel. Kasey was a girl he’d never forget.

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